Illinois has elected just two wealthy people to major
statewide office in the last 20 years: Former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald and
Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Both candidates won because they ran as firm,
anti-establishment outsiders. Fitzgerald was best known as a state Senator in
the 1990s for railing against the elders who ran his Republican Party,
including many who had been supplying the GOP with loads of money over the
years and who’d used their positions to handsomely profit off of state
business. Rauner also ran against his party’s insiders when he launched his
campaign, dismissing them as bought and paid for by Springfield’s special
What establishment party support both men did receive mostly
came at the end of their general election campaigns. Their personal finances,
which allowed them to self-fund, kept them free of establishment taint, and
that independence gave both of them credibility as outsiders. As election day
neared, some establishment GOP figures decided they’d better swallow their pride
and get on board. The establishment needed the insurgents more than the
insurgents needed the establishment.
Billionaire Democrat JB Pritzker isn’t following this
pattern as he campaigns for governor. Insiders, elected officials and
politically connected union leaders have been jumping on his bandwagon from the
get-go, usually after being impressed with Pritzker during one-on-one meetings.
The game plan seems pretty obvious. Pritzker doesn’t want
those folks and groups endorsing Chris Kennedy, whose last name is still
immensely popular and whose own connections over the decades would’ve
guaranteed him support from his party’s elders if Pritzker and his infinite
bank account hadn’t stepped in. Kennedy doesn’t have Pritzker’s kind of money,
so Kennedy is perceived as needing support from the people and groups who fund
and staff the party’s apparatus. At the moment, those folks are streaming
toward Pritzker amid a cacophony of whispers (all denied) that House Speaker
Michael J. Madigan is directing the traffic. Starve Kennedy of money and foot
soldiers and maybe he’ll drop out.
Kennedy, whose personal wealth is substantial, but nothing
like Pritzker’s, has made some half-hearted attempts to claim that endorsements
don’t matter whenever he loses them. But he hasn’t yet embraced (or maybe
doesn’t even recognize) the role that’s literally being thrust upon him.
Kennedy’s originally preferred path of being the widely endorsed “inevitable”
candidate is now owned by Pritzker. By default, Kennedy’s now the most prominent
“outsider” in the race.
After almost two and a half years of Rauner’s rule, the
government is in shambles. Rauner’s first campaign video back in 2013
complained that the state had “the highest unemployment in the
Midwest,” and that’s still true today. He pointed to the state’s
“lowest credit rating in America,” and that’s only gotten worse.
“Springfield is broken; $8,000 in pension debt for every man, woman and
child,” Rauner bemoaned in the video. That figure is now $10,000.
So, maybe Illinois voters will yearn for someone who can
work with Springfield to solve our massive problems and get us back to a
semblance of normalcy after three populist governors in a row couldn’t get
anything done. That appears to be where both Pritzker and Kennedy are going.
If Rauner doesn’t obtain a budget deal, he will simply run
against the establishment again, claiming the evil powers that be (Speaker
Madigan) have blocked him at every turn, but that he is “very close”
to breaking their self-serving logjam. And, indeed, if he is re-elected after
what could be four years of gridlock, the Democrats will have to start working
with him. Democrats claim that Rauner hid his “real” agenda from
voters in 2014. But that agenda is now crystal clear to everyone.
Almost half of Illinois Democrats voted for insurgent
presidential candidate Bernie Sanders a year ago. A recent poll by the Paul
Simon Public Policy Institute showed that Gov. Rauner is slightly more popular
than Speaker Madigan in Chicago, of all places.
So, an authentic, independent, populist message from the
late Robert Kennedy’s sincere, accomplished and mild-mannered son could very
One of the things you can’t help but notice in the press
coverage of Kennedy’s Downstate appearances is the reports on crowd size. His
family name is packing halls all over the place as locals come out to witness a
part of history.
The obvious question is whether Kennedy can sustain this.
His name and the hints of his family’s famous accent in his speaking voice are
working like a charm for him right now. But will it last?
If he embraces a different direction, I think the answer
could be yes.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political
newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.
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