Jim Dey: Governor's race all about survival of the fittest

There's a rule in the movie business when it comes to judging what will be a hit at the box office: nobody knows anything.

In other words, you makes your picks and you takes your chances.

The same rule applies to the 2014 race for governor in Illinois, at least for now. The filing period is in December, the primary election is in March, the general election is in November and anybody who confidently predicts how it will all turn out is just blowing smoke.

Six candidates (four Republicans, two Democrats) are vying for their party's nominations, and one can make a credible case for all of them, save one, as possible winners.

Strange things have happened already, and more surprises are sure to come.

Who would have predicted:

— That the Democrats' strongest candidate, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, would vacillate for months about whether to run before opting out of the governor's race because her father refused to step down from his position as speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives?

— That the Cook County Democratic Party, for decades the personal property of the Daley political dynasty (two Richards, father and son, each served multiple terms as mayor of Chicago), would decline to endorse a Daley for governor. The party Friday endorsed incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, rejecting William Daley, son and brother of the King Richards, in favor of Quinn.

— That Quinn, for decades the self-styled reformer fighting against the corrupt establishment, would become the choice of the corrupt establishment that makes up the Cook County Democratic Party?

Who would have predicted that:

— The same Republican Party that controlled the governor's office for 26 years (1977 to 2003) would be lost in the wilderness — out of power, out of luck and out to make itself relevant again?

— Despite being a minority party in a now-solid Democratic state, Republicans have a decent chance to win the governor's office because Illinois is in such sorry condition under Democrats' rule?

And that's barely scratching the surface.

Our politicians have run the state into the ground, but they put on a pretty entertaining show.

So here's an update of where we are in the 2014 gubernatorial race, with the proviso that it's too early to draw many conclusions.

First, the Democrats

The primary election is likely to be a bloodbath between Quinn, the rebel turned establishmentarian, and Daley, the establishmentarian turned rebel.

A former White House chief of staff under President Obama, Cabinet member under President Clinton and wealthy, politically connected businessman, Daley has a problem. He's running on his name and his connections, but he's also running away from his name and his connections.

His problem is simple: Will voters believe that a Daley, a name synonymous with electoral and governmental funny business, is going to reform state government? He promises that he's the man for the job, the kind of person who can work with legislators to solve problems. But one of his solutions is passage of a constitutional amendment authorizing a progressive state income tax to provide the gusher of new revenue he wants to spend.

Then, there's Quinn, the Peck's bad boy of Illinois politics. Democratic (and Republican) legislators hate him even more than ever for stripping them of their pay as punishment for failing to pass pension reform. But Quinn revels in their hatred because he figures, probably correctly, that voters hate the Legislature — remember, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

These guys are going to go at each other hard, and it won't be pretty. Truth slinging is never pretty in politics.

The Republicans

Four candidates (state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford of Pontiac and Chicago businessman Bruce Rauner) are vying for the GOP nomination.

Brady had his chance in 2010, narrowly winning the GOP nomination and then narrowly losing the general election to Quinn. The consensus among GOP operatives is that he's had his chance and that he doesn't deserve and won't get another.

Rutherford, a veteran state legislator and current treasurer, brags he's the only Republican candidate to win a statewide race, and he's right. Rutherford campaigns at nontraditional (for Republicans) gatherings, swears he'll get the necessary 20 percent of the vote in Chicago a Republican needs to win and is relentless in getting around the state to meet people. He has high name recognition among GOP candidates, but don't get too excited about his experience as a statewide candidate.

Republican state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka also won statewide races, but that didn't prevent her landslide loss in 2006 to Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, then swamped in a variety of scandals and now serving a 14-year prison sentence. Asked to choose between an honest treasurer and a corrupt governor, Illinois voters went with the corrupt governor.

On paper, Dillard, onetime chief of staff to former Gov. Jim Edgar, is a strong candidate. He lost the GOP nomination to Brady in 2010 by fewer than 200 votes and would have been a stronger general election candidate against Quinn. He would have brought experience, temperament and ability to the governor's office, and the state would be far better off for it.

But that's ancient history. Some of his supporters/donors have moved on, and Dillard is going to have a hard time financing a strong run for the nomination.

The mystery man, X factor, wild card is Republican businessman Bruce Rauner, a self-made multi-gazillionaire. He's declared war on the state's corrupt status quo, promising to take on the trial lawyers, the public employee unions and the culture of corruption. But is he a credible voice of authority or just another corporate chieftain who thinks all he has to do to fix the state is issue a few orders?

Illinois' history shows that millionaires who come down from Mount Olympus to campaign among the rabble don't fare very well. Rauner's bank account is unlimited, but what of his patience with the difficulties of the democratic process?

There just aren't many conclusions to draw — it's chaos theory, sound and fury signifying nothing, much ado about very little. But things will heat up as the March primary approaches, and the battle on both sides will be fun to watch.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion

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