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Buckle up: Illinois governor's election is only a year away

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Monday, November 6, 2017  |  Article  |  By RYAN VOYLES Herald & Review

Candidates--Statewide (12) , Governor (44) Breen, Peter--State House, 48 , Ives, Jeanne--State House, 42
SPRINGFIELD • Brace yourself. The deafening political ads and rounds of candidate appearances are coming. The race for Illinois governor is entering the final countdown — and every corner of the state is in play.

Monday officially marks one year from Election Day for what’s widely predicted to be one of the most expensive statewide races in American history, a battle royale featuring a handful of well-funded candidates focused on leading the fifth most populated state in the nation.

In most marathon election cycles, 12 months is seen as an eternity. But this isn’t a typical state. And this isn’t a typical election cycle.

Instead, GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, elected on a no-nonsense outsider-reform platform, faces a near revolt from within his own party over his handling of the past three years, a likely challenger in state Rep. Jeanne Ives, of Wheaton, and a crowded Democratic slate that includes one of the richest men on earth.

The past term, full of protracted budget battles, $14.6 billion in unpaid bills and bruising clashes with the Democratic-led Legislature, have not been kind to Rauner, whom political site Politico labeled as “the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the country.”

Such baggage is a lot to overcome, said former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who held the office from 1991 to 1999.

“The last 2½ years have been a disaster without a budget and all the problems it caused,” Edgar said. “I think most people would like to see government function, and he’s the governor, so he’s kind of the one responsible.”

Rauner has repeatedly said he won’t be deterred by critics and is making progress in his reform agenda that includes property tax relief, term limits and responsible budgeting.

“We can throw in the towel, walk away and leave our future to the same corrupt career politicians,” he said in a video message last month announcing his candidacy. “Or we can fight. I choose to fight.”

For political observers like Jak Tichenor, it’s time to grab some popcorn and watch how things unfold.

“Illinois politics never fails to disappoint when it comes to volatility,” said Tichenor, the interim director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“It’s like a (Steven) Spielberg action movie. You just have to suspend your disbelief to follow the plotline.”

On the Democratic side, the primary field includes:

• Daniel Biss, a state senator and math professor;

• Bob Daiber, Madison County regional schools superintendent;

• Tio Hardiman, a Chicago community organizer;

• Chris Kennedy, a businessman and nephew of President John F. Kennedy;

• Alexander Paterakis, a suburban engineer and small business owner;

• J.B. Pritzker, an entrepreneur and heir to Hyatt hotels.

A natural advantage for any political incumbent is the ability to tout progress and showcase accomplishments while in office. The challenge for Rauner, a former equity investor who had never held public office before the last election, is that several of his major legislative victories have turned part of his own base against him.

Rauner has continued to stress his conservative pedigree with his “turnaround agenda,” featuring such issues as a property tax freeze, changes to the state’s workers’ compensation system and term limits on elected officials. But he has also signed legislation that would allow state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions, as well as a bill that prohibits police from detaining or arresting a person based on their immigration status.

A poll released last week by the market research company Morning Consult had Rauner’s approval rating at 30 percent, making him one of the least popular governors in the country. The same poll showed his disapproval rating at 55 percent, with another 15 percent undecided.

The poll was conducted between July 1 and Sept. 30, wrapping up just as Rauner signed a controversial measure expanding abortion coverage for women on Medicaid, saying he supported abortion rights. It marked a reversal for the governor.

The Republican backlash was immediate. State Rep. Peter Breen of Lombard, the new House Republican floor leader, said last month that the governor had failed to keep his word and was “done,” adding that a primary challenge was inevitable.

Just a few weeks later, Ives announced she was circulating petitions to challenge Rauner in April’s primary election. To get on the ballot, she needs to submit a minimum of 5,000 signatures to the State Board of Elections by Dec. 4.

If she overcomes the first hurdle, observers said the three-term representative faces an immensely difficult task against Rauner, whose re-election campaign committee had $72 million on hand Thursday. Ives had $22,488 on hand in her House re-election campaign committee.

“You can buy yourself a primary victory,” Edgar said of Rauner’s advantage.

Although Ives is unable to match Rauner dollar for dollar, she is likely to draw attention from conservatives looking for an alternative candidate. She has already started to receive donations from the Illinois Liberty PAC, a political action committee chaired by Pat Hughes, who co-founded the Illinois Opportunity Project.

Ives has a reputation as a sharp-tongued ideologue willing to go after those who disagree with her, said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. The support from those Rauner has alienated will strengthen her ability to “beat up” on the governor throughout the primary, he said.