'Invisible primary' in full swing across state of Illinois

'Invisible primary' in full swing across state of Illinois

By Jim Nowlan

Voters may think all is quiet on the election front, yet an "invisible primary" is in play among gubernatorial hopefuls. Several are trying to stare down prospective competitors before petitions are filed in December for the March 2014 primary elections.

For several of the announced or likely candidates, too many in the race is to "divide and be conquered." For others, a big field of opponents is just what the doctor ordered.

On the Democratic side, there are three prominent prospects. The incumbent Pat Quinn has a reputation for battling back successfully from low approval ratings.

Announced challenger Bill Daley, he with the famous political name, has been U.S. commerce secretary and Obama chief of staff. But will the name be a plus or a minus?

Popular state attorney general Lisa Madigan is a lady in waiting at present, yet if she enters into the race, she will try to scare Daley out. In turn, Daley's candidacy is a signal to Lisa that if she is wavering, she won't have the role of challenger all to herself.

Republicans have three tried-and-true public officials plus a wild card in the person of unknown, wealthy outsider Bruce Rauner, who threatens to spend millions of his own money in the race (and thus the money is indeed a threat to the lesser-funded candidates).

GOP state treasurer Dan Rutherford, of Pontiac, has already announced his candidacy, as has state Sen. Kirk Dillard, of suburban DuPage County, who lost by a whisker in the 2010 primary to state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington. Brady, who went on to lose narrowly to Quinn in 2010, announced last week that he would run for governor again.

Rauner has homes along both the Chicago's North Shore and in the city. He has made hundreds of millions of dollars as head of a private equity firm that buys, pumps up and sells businesses.

Rauner wants a big field of opponents to divide the regular party vote. He needs to build name recognition now, as he is doing with positive ads that are running statewide. The other three will try to scare one another out, so there would be only one opponent to Daddy Warbucks.

Rutherford and Brady are trumpeting their downstate bona fides, as that is where 40-50 percent of the GOP primary vote will be cast. Dillard will make the case that he is the favorite son of the vote-rich suburbs.

Ironically, the unknown Rauner's outsider status combined with a huge, self-funded war chest to define himself positively, probably gives him an edge at this point. The other three GOP aspirants will use dueling poll results to show that one or the other can't win and should drop out.

The big issues are state employee pension cost reduction, whether to roll back income tax increases of 2011, and the future of a struggling state.

Lisa Madigan has a tricky situation vis-a-vis pension change, as her father is Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, who stands steadfastly by his plan to cut back pension obligations sharply.

Does Lisa back "the Madigan plan" and thus reinforce the fact that as governor she would be part of a duopoly of power in Illinois?

The income tax rollback issue is also tricky. The revenue from the increased taxes has only replaced roughly the amount the state had been borrowing combined with pension payments it had not been making. And yet the state still has billions in unpaid bills.

The easy route is to promise the rollback, which Rauner has done. Rutherford has stated, "All options should be on the table regarding the tax issue, as it all depends on what the governor and legislature do in the next two years."

The issue could spark a thoughtful discussion among candidates about where the state is and where it should be heading, but I'm not optimistic, based on our history of issue-lite campaigns.

The gubernatorial campaign is thus underway, even though below the radar.

I predict Lisa Madigan will decide not to run, because of the complications of sharing power with her father, leaving Daley as Quinn's challenger.

I also predict that one — maybe two — of the three experienced GOP prospects will later drop out. After all, that is what invisible primaries are all about.

Disclosure: Jim Nowlan was appointed to the Illinois Ethics Commission by state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Dan Rutherford.

Jim Nowlan is a member of the Executive Ethics Commission in Illinois. He is a retired senior fellow with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a former president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois. A former Illinois legislator and aide to three unindicted governors, he is the lead author of "Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide" (University of Illinois Press, 2010). He can be contacted at jnowlan3@gmail.com.