ILLINOIS (WCIA) — The campaigns for Gov. Bruce Rauner and his Democratic opponent J.B. Pritzker clash on almost every topic you can imagine, but the actions and statements of the candidates in recent days indicate they agree on this: the churning tides of national politics will likely play a powerful role in deciding the outcome of their race in November.
“We are pretty confident that the majority of voters in Illinois share J.B.’s view that Trump’s policies have hurt working families and they want a governor who has the courage to say that,” Pritzker campaign manager Anne Caprara told WCIA when asked how President Trump’s agenda influences the state’s political climate.
Reluctant to fight on a battlefield defined by someone who operates out of their control, the Rauner campaign is fighting to shift the spotlight away from a deluge of national headlines about the Trump Administration.
“Pritzker is obsessed with Washington politics while he turns a blind eye to the corruption and out of control spending in Springfield,” Rauner campaign manager Betsy Ankney said.
The tug of war for control of the narrative suggests both well-funded campaigns are carefully poring over very similar polling numbers that feature vastly different public opinions about state and national politics.
As Pritzker and state Democrats are crowing about the coming surge of a ‘Blue Wave’ at the election polls, the governor’s campaign is trying to chart a survival course through choppier waters. Rauner’s résumé in office features an unprecedented budget standoff that weighs like an anchor around his neck, and his most recent poll numbers show he’s already under water in a moderate state that historically has leaned Democratic.
“Bruce Rauner is more unpopular in Illinois than Donald Trump – a low bar which Rauner has managed to crawl under,” Caprara said.
As intent as the Pritzker campaign is to bind Rauner to the President, the governor seems just as eager to wriggle free.
Last week, the President’s policies on immigration enforcement became the most recent national debate to spill over into the race for governor when Politico published, and later clarified, a story linking one of Rauner’s investment funds to a medical company that services detainees held near the border. The story’s supercharged headline gave a jubilant Team Pritzker enough leeway to publish a false, misleading ad that was roundly debunked by reporters in every corner of the state, including the reporter who wrote the original story for Politico.
Rauner does still hold a partial interest in his former private equity firm GTCR. That company runs an investment fund that bought part of the medical company that has contracts with the federal government. The investment fund listed a profit in Rauner’s most recent ethics statement, though the document does not specify which of its many investments delivered gains and which reported losses. The Rauner campaign said there are no profits since the investment fund has not sold off the stake in the medical company, and the governor’s office says Rauner will donate any proceeds from his blind trust to charity.
Still, the ad effectively forced the governor to play defense and his opponent felt little pressure to retract or reverse course, even as the claims made in the attack ad unraveled.
When pressed for answers and presented with fact-checks, Pritzker doubled down on the hit during a downstate campaign tour in Peoria and Champaign last week, saying twice, “The ad is true,” though it is not. He did, however, more accurately describe the medical company as one that “profits from providing services to detainees,” leading at least one reporter to wonder if Pritzker preferred the alternative.
A campaign spokesperson justified the ad, explaining that “…Rauner is an owner of a company that profits off helping keep children separated from their families through their work to keep ICE detention centers operational.”
While the Pritzker campaign’s definition of ‘owner’ is overly simple and inconsistent with the candidate’s murky explanation of his own investments, their statement raised an interesting question: does Pritzker support shutting those detention centers down? The sentiment in his comments was strikingly similar to language from activists who want to shutter the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
On Monday morning, Pritzker held a campaign event with progressive U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who recently emerged as one of the leading voices in the movement to ‘Abolish ICE.’ Gillibrand visited a detention center near the border, protested the conditions inside, and said about the agency that she would “get rid of it” during an interview with CNN.
Would Pritzker echo calls from her and Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to ‘Abolish ICE?’
Not exactly, campaign spokeswoman Jordan Abuddayeh said in a lengthy statement that tied Rauner to Trump before circling back to highlight legislation in Illinois.
“Donald Trump’s administration is using ICE to separate families and communities are being forced to live in fear,” she wrote. “This policy is contrary to what America stands for. We need real change and to do away with practices that separate families and demonize immigrants. We need to reform the culture in ICE so they’re focused on violent criminals, drug traffickers, and terrorists, not families seeking refuge. Here in Illinois, Bruce Rauner needs to stand up to Trump and sign SB 35 and enforce and strengthen the Trust Act. Not only do we need comprehensive immigration reform, but we also need a governor who is willing to stand up to Donald Trump.”
In mentioning the president’s name three times, the Pritzker campaign statement repeats a consistent campaign theme: that Rauner is living in Trump’s shadow and is reluctant or afraid to oppose him.
However, while the Pritzker campaign feels emboldened to take swings at Rauner for the president’s more unpopular flare ups, other signs indicate that they too may also be taking cautious steps not to alienate a markedly more conservative downstate voter base that was drawn to the president’s campaign rhetoric about illegal immigration.
For instance, a Pritzker campaign organizer, whose name WCIA chose not to publish, tweeted ‘Abolish ICE’ last week. Within minutes after reporters started asking questions, the tweet was deleted along with all Twitter bio references to the campaign.
For Rauner, satisfying the Republican base in a post-2016 world has proven to be quite the moving target. Just days after embracing Vice President Mike Pence and praising the administration’s economic policies at an event in Rosemont, the governor dodged questions about his proximity to or affinity with the president himself, and took umbrage at the notion his appearance with Pence was an effort to win back votes from social conservatives.
“I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization,” Rauner said. “Mike Pence has been a long time good friend of mine. I have supported him for years. He has supported me for years. It was an honor for me to introduce him at an event.”
The governor would not specifically say if he supported President Trump, but instead offered to “…talk about issues where the administration has done great things like tax cuts, regulatory relief, working hard for fair trade. I am very supportive of many things and where I disagree with the president, for example comments on Charlottesville or separating families at the border, I have spoken out very forcefully where I’ve disagreed with the president.”
“I guess when you are a Republican governor more unpopular than the most unpopular Republican president in history, then applauding the Trump agenda, fawning over Trump’s Vice President and standing by as President Trump pledges his allegiance to Vladimir Putin makes some sort of backward sense,” Caprara said. “But I don’t understand how it helps Rauner get votes from some of the people who gave him a narrow victory in 2014.”
On Tuesday, Rauner did criticize the president’s comments that validated the denials of Russia’s president over the accusations from his own Director of National Intelligence about hacking and interference in the 2016 election.
“I was deeply troubled by the president’s comments yesterday,” Rauner said prior to President Trump partially retracting his leniency toward Moscow. “Defending the Russians is I think absolutely not the right thing to do. The Russians are not our friends. Putin is a brutal dictator. There is every evidence that the Russians hacked our digital election systems here in Illinois and in 22 other states. We have got to hold the Russians accountable for their actions.”
People close to the governor define his posture as adamant — defiant even — that he refuses to accept that this is now President Trump’s world and he’s just fighting to survive in it. If Rauner isn’t a ‘Never Trump’ Republican, then he certainly fashions himself as a ‘Pre-Trump’ Republican — one who won elected office without Trump’s help, and one who has the messaging chops (and the wealth) to define the issues of a race on his own.
In that venue, Rauner finds more familiar footing on a political landscape where he can cast House Speaker Michael Madigan as the dominant villain and he can play the hero.
“Illinois has very real challenges caused by decades of rule by Mike Madigan and corrupt career politicians, and Madigan’s candidate Pritzker only offers more of the same,” Ankney said, adding that “Gov. Rauner is focused on building a stronger Illinois by fighting for more jobs, lower taxes, and putting an end to corruption.”
But many statehouse Republicans fear privately that those days have come and gone. Several of the governor’s allies have expressed concern that his strategy is outdated, washed away in the deluge of a social media era of politics that is largely defined by a celebrity television star-turned-politician whom Rauner rarely likes to acknowledge.
For Pritzker, the calculation to tie Rauner to Trump is an easy one politically speaking (he was one of Hillary Clinton’s biggest donors after all), though swelling anti-Trump activism groups like ‘Abolish ICE’ may at times tempt the candidate’s impulses to veer left or test his ability to occupy the moral high ground and the political middle ground all at once.
Beltway Republicans have already dubbed the ‘Abolish ICE’ craze as misguided and out of the political mainstream. Some were even openly taunting Democrats to take a show vote in support of the agency before House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) opted against the theatrics.
At his joint appearance with Rauner last Friday, the vice president seemed to relish the fight, branding the ‘Abolish ICE’ movement as “reckless criticism by many liberal Democrats.”
“I’m here to tell you the brave men and women of ICE put their lives on the line every day to remove dangerous criminal illegal immigrants from our streets and to rescue children who are exploited by human traffickers,” Pence said.
A spokesman for Rauner’s campaign said the governor does not support the idea to close the agency, although the governor’s stance on immigration has not always aligned with President Trump’s. Rauner took significant heat from his conservative primary challenger Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton) who accused him of betraying the President by signing the Trust Act. Ives claimed the law would make Illinois a “sanctuary state.” Under the direction of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Justice Department targeted Illinois with a subpoena threatening to withhold federal funding for “protecting criminal aliens.” Law enforcement agencies in the state have said the measure does not shield criminals from prosecution.
On the road to the Governor’s Mansion, Rauner and Pritzker have already begun to recruit the likes of Pence and Gillibrand to excite their respective voter bases; but the closer we get to Election Day, it won’t just be their friends — but their foes — who will define the contours of this race.
Both campaigns will try to pressure swing voters to decide which candidate’s villain they fear most: the one in the statehouse or the one in the White House.
Or perhaps, the more pertinent question in this Trump era is which villain — and which attack ads — will get better ratings?