The Illinois governor race could be the most pivotal of the 2018 midterms
Next week's House of Representatives elections could be bitterly close. Results in a handful of competitive districts could decide whether Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) holds the speaker's gavel come January. With all 435 seats up for grabs, only a fraction of which have actually been polled, pinpointing the pivotal districts is difficult — they could be almost anywhere.
That's where the impending campaign Hindenburg of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner comes in. Rauner was elected in 2014 by a fluke, and last year, he was declared "the worst Republican governor in America" by National Review, a conservative publication. His Democratic challenger, billionaire J.B. Pritzker, hasn't led any public poll by fewer than 13 points. It seems Rauner is headed toward one of the most legendary general election defeats suffered by a sitting governor in the United States.
At this point, the result of this race is virtually assured. Pritzker will rise while Rauner sinks. The real question is whether Rauner is going to take half the Illinois Republican House delegation to the bottom of Lake Michigan with him, along with the GOP's majority in the chamber.
Since 1990, only 27 incumbent governors have lost their general election. The worst defeat this century was Kentucky Republican Ernie Fletcher's scandal-driven, 17.4-point walloping by Democrat Steve Beshear, which was also the last time any incumbent lost by double digits. Rauner earned his unpopularity the legal way, with mind-blowing arrogance, fiscal incompetence, and a record of across-the-board failure that managed to alienate allies and adversaries alike. A former businessman, Rauner came into office without any governing experience, and will still have virtually none when he leaves office four years later. His plan to turn around the state's troubled finances involved a fanciful blitzkrieg of far-right reforms, none of which ever had a meaningful chance of getting through the towering Democratic majorities in the state legislature. Rather than accept his plight as a Republican governing a heavily Democratic state, Rauner dug in his heels and inflicted two years of budgetary stalemate on Illinois. As a result, the state is, in virtually every respect, worse off than the day he took office.
Occasionally Rauner conceded to the state's political reality, signing bills protecting undocumented immigrants, expanding voting rights, and increasing abortion access. These actions weren't enough to rescue his reputation with Illinois Democrats, but they did manage to alienate the state's hopelessly outnumbered but increasingly radicalized Trumpist minority, which nearly succeeded in taking him down in the primary earlier this year. Judging from public opinion polls, the supporters of openly bigoted state Rep. Jeanne Ives (R) have not gotten over her narrow loss to Rauner, and have yet to come home for the general election.
Rauner is going down without dignity, relying on nasty and off-putting TV ads to attack Pritzker on issues voters are unlikely to care about. In a large 2016 study, political scientists Kevin Banda and Jason Windett found that although going negative can lead to a brief boost in fortunes, "candidates who sponsor more negative ads relative to their opponents appear to harm themselves overall." If that's true, it's more bad news for Rauner, whose campaign has started referring to his Democratic opponent as "Toilets Pritzker."
The danger for national Republicans is that the sinkhole at the top of the Illinois ticket this year could take out a number of Republican members of the House who might otherwise survive. The Cook Political Report rates four Republican-held Illinois races as competitive (out of seven total GOP seats).
In the Illinois 6th, a suburban Chicago district that Hillary Clinton won by 7 percent, incumbent GOP Rep. Peter Roskam is now a distinct underdog to his Democratic challenger Sean Casten and hasn't led in a poll since early September. That district has been a top Democratic target all cycle, but the GOP's toxic reputation in Illinois has also jeopardized three more Republican-leaning districts — the 12th, 13th, and 14th. In the St.Louis-adjacent southwestern Illinois 12th District, which went twice for Barack Obama but voted for Trump by nearly 15 percent, Democrats recruited Navy veteran Brendan Kelly to challenge GOP Rep. Mike Bost. While polling is sparse in all of these races, Bost has the biggest cushion of the endangered Republicans, leading by 9 points in a recent New York Times/Sienna College poll. The same poll had Bost leading by just 1 point in September.
Republicans are more concerned about Rep. Randy Hultgren in the 14th District, who led his charismatic opponent Lauren Underwood by only 4 points in an early October survey taken at the height of the mania surrounding Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination. Underwood, a nurse and former adviser to Obama, is running a strong campaign in a district Trump carried by only 4 points. And in the 13th District, GOP Rep. Rodney Davis is facing a stiff challenge from entrepreneur Betsy Dirksen Londrigan. The one and only poll of this race had Davis leading by 5, in a district Trump carried by nearly 6.
In a vacuum, Hultgren and Davis should both be considered marginal favorites. But any substantial underperformance driven by a lack of enthusiasm for the top of the ticket, or a small polling error that underestimates progressive turnout, could flip either or both of these districts to Democrats. Londrigan, Kelly, and Underwood also all have significant, if not overwhelming, cash advantages over their Republican opponents. One Democratic media consultant working closely with the party's statewide efforts this year told me that Pritzker's infinite financial muscle is being flexed all over the state in the form of a $20 million field operation, and that Democrats will do better downstate (i.e. outside of Chicago) than they have in years.
There are a few caveats here: First of all, the governor's race has been considered such a forgone conclusion for so long that there isn't a whole lot of polling. The many undecideds might be disillusioned Rauner supporters who will reluctantly show up on Election Day and vote for the Republican House candidate, even if they skip the main event. Pritzker doesn't have the sensational grassroots fan base that an Andrew Gillum or Beto O'Rourke might, and his inevitability is more a function of disgust with state and national Republicans than a sign of genuine enthusiasm. And like many large states that are not competitive at the presidential level, Illinois has had pretty abysmal voter turnout during midterm election years, pinballing between about 40 percent and 42 percent this century. Democrats will probably need to boost turnout a bit higher if they have any hope of wresting these districts away from Republicans.
No one knows what effect the Rauner problem is going to have on the GOP's fortunes down-ballot, because we have so few instances of an incumbent governor getting hammered like this. All we know is that if control of the House comes down to a handful of tight races, the Rauner-led apocalypse could be dispositive.
One thing is for sure: Pretty much everyone is going to be happy to put Rauner's short, miserable tenure as Illinois governor in the rearview mirror. And if he takes a few extra Illinois Republicans into retirement with him, all the better.