Even as they gleefully look ahead to the 2018 midterms, Democrats are still dealing with their 2014 election disaster. Case in point: A Republican named Bruce Rauner fluked his way into the Illinois governor's seat, beating the embattled incumbent Democrat, Pat Quinn, by four points. It was a shocking result in a state Barack Obama carried by 17 points in 2012. If you also guessed that Rauner was a multimillionaire who basically bought the office with a gigantic pile of his own dough, you get a free Cubs ticket.
Since taking office, Rauner has, in a literal way that might be difficult to believe unless you actually live here, done almost nothing. Despite lucking his way into office in a deep-blue state, the governor conducted a pointless two-year standoff with the state legislature, forcing Illinois to operate without a budget and worsening the state's already dire financial situation by racking up more unpaid bills and forcing agencies to downgrade the state's credit. The situation has proved calamitous for all kinds of institutions, from state colleges and universities to the provision of mental health services and other services for the needy.
Rauner refused to make any compromise at all unless the legislature performed a radical Wisconsin-style gutting of organized labor for him. As this was never, ever going to happen, Rauner settled for sticking his fingers in his ears and accomplishing jack. In the fall of 2017, his team put up an "accomplishments" tab on his website and then hilariously left it blank for days. Things got so bad that state Democrats recruited a handful of Republicans to pass a tax increase over Rauner's veto. Somehow, the Earth continued to spin.
The popular belief that Rauner won because he's rich, and the reality that he has already tossed over $50 million of his own money into his re-election race in the same way that normal people drop pennies into fountains, has led many state Democrats to think that you have to fight billions with billions. Rauner has unlimited cheddar, so goes this line of thinking, and therefore we need someone with unlimited cheddar to beat him. There is no other possible explanation for why political neophyte J.B. Pritzker is (supposedly) leading the Democratic race for the nomination, other than fear of Rauner's riches and the fact that the Pritzker family name adorns roughly every third building in Chicago.
Here's the reality: While the state faces some unique structural economic challenges that will be a drag on any Democrat, the party does not need a billionaire to win this year's gubernatorial election. In fact, they probably just need someone with a pulse who isn't a criminal or a serial sexual harasser.
The calculus isn't difficult: Rauner is a deeply unpopular executive in a state that Democrats usually win in a walk. His most recent approval rating, from September, was 25 points underwater. To compound the governor's self-inflicted problems, there is every indication to suggest that outraged Democrats are going to turn out in 2018 at presidential-year levels, overwhelming any advantage Rauner might otherwise have by virtue of owning an all-you-can-write checkbook. Turnout in last year's elections in Virginia and Alabama was much higher than normal for an off-year election, and President Trump is likely to continue riling up the left with his despicable theatrics, incompetent governance, misogynist ramblings, racist tirades, and gratuitous stupidity. In other words, Illinoisans are going to be out in force this year, and they are not expending all of that energy just to send someone from President Trump's party back to Springfield.
If Democrats could stop panicking for five minutes about Rauner's enormous stacks of money, they might take a moment to seriously reflect on who the best progressive candidate for governor in this state actually is. Illinois is a lot like its biggest city — a place that thinks it's much more forward-thinking than it actually is. Despite the dominance of Democrats in state and national politics for a generation, Illinois looks nothing like the kind of progressive model that it should be based on its underlying partisan dynamics.
Its income tax is flat, its social programs are woefully inadequate, and previous leaders spent most of this century ineptly selling off government assets like highways and parking meters to Gulf sovereign wealth funds and Wall Street speculators. For all of its many underappreciated wonders, Chicago (the state's biggest city by far) suffers from dramatic segregation and inequality, as the rich park their trust funds in downtown condos while working people get pushed further and further into the margins. In other words, this is a state that is crying out for leftist leadership, for someone who can prove once and for all that the progressive economic model works better than slash-and-burn austerity or Democratic patronage politics.
Is that person J.B. Pritzker? Maybe. But I doubt it.
Pritzker runs an investment firm that is knee-deep in digital startups at a time when Americans are turning decisively against their Silicon Valley overlords. His early campaign strategy is uninspiring to the point of parody — most of his unavoidable ads on TV say almost nothing about Illinois at all, and mostly focus on how he is going to stop Trump.
Well no kidding. Standing up to America's malignant president is sort of a bare-minimum qualification here. Is anyone in the Democratic field in favor of capitulating to a man with a 37 percent approval rating? Pritzker's attempts to prove his progressive bona fides by sharing old pictures of himself at protests are just sad. And his website contains zero words about where he stands on the war raging in Chicago between charter schools and public education. He has very little to say about how the state's terrifying structural budget deficit can be turned around without slashing spending. It is very hard to believe that someone from one of the richest families on the face of the Earth really gets progressivism.
Beyond Pritzker and the person regarded as his chief opponent, Chris Kennedy (and yes, he is that kind of Kennedy), there is a candidate who is getting overlooked but who might ultimately be the best choice: state Sen. Daniel Biss. A former University of Chicago math professor, Biss is now the default progressive darling in this race after Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar dropped out.
While he is somewhat unpolished on the stump, Biss boasts the most progressive platform of the remaining contenders, promising to do things that will put him on a collision course with the hated Democratic legislative machine, like enacting limits on how long one person can serve as the leader of the Illinois House or Senate. He wants to amend the state constitution to allow progressive taxation, eliminate tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy and publicly finance state elections. Biss also supports free community college and expanded investment in the state's declining public universities, and opposes the kind of corporate tax giveaways embodied in Chicago's plan to allow Amazon to keep its workers' state income taxes should the company locate its second headquarters here.
While many Illinois progressives are resigned to a Pritzker victory, this thing is far from over. There hasn't been a public poll since October, and the primary doesn't happen until March 20. While many critical Democratic players have announced their support for Pritzker, including the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Democratic County Chairmen's Association, the choice will ultimately belong to voters who have barely started to pay attention to this thing. And as 2016's presidential primaries proved again and again, sometimes endorsements matter less than which candidate has captured the zeitgeist.
As the contenders ramp up their campaign activity in the new year, and as the candidates square off in the first of six debates starting Jan. 23, Biss will need to level sharp-elbowed attacks on his better-funded and higher-profile rivals, while also proving to primary voters that his is the most authentic progressive voice left in the race. If he can do so, he might just shock the political world by catapulting himself and an entirely different brand of Democratic politics into office.