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Riding A Harley ... To A Republican Victory?

Hannah Meisel

  With summer coming to an end, and the November election getting ever closer, Gov. Pat Quinn and other Illinois Democrats gathered Wednesday in Springfield, for an annual party meeting and rally. But Thursday, Republicans had their day. The GOP hopes it'll be their year.

There's no "normal" way to get to the area on the Illinois State Fairgrounds where Republicans had their gathering.

For most people, it involves winding through livestock pens of goat and sheep. The committed, or lucky, few may have a golf cart they can drive across the grounds to get them there, or there is a parking lot and road nearby --- so a politician could get dropped off right in front.

But Bruce Rauner did it another way.  He zoomed up on his Harley.  The crowd went wild, chanting "We want Bruce!"

It's one of many signs that Rauner is a different sort of candidate, who's driving a different sort of campaign.

Republicans lost the governor's mansion back in '02, when George Ryan finished his term with a limp thanks to a scandal that put him behind bars.

And despite his successor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, also landing in prison, and despite an income tax increase approved with only Democratic votes, Democrats were able to ride out the recession and not only hold onto the governor's office, they've since gained seats in the General Assembly.

Rauner says no more.

"This is our year! This is our election! We're going to sweep Pat Quinn into the dust bin of history! Pat Quinn is done this year!" he told his Republican fans in a speech. Of course, that was the same thing State Sen. Bill Brady, Republicans' nominee for governor in 2010, said when he narrowly lost to Quinn.

"I think he's got a lot to build on; what we did. We won 98 counties. Pat Quinn is challenged by not being in the honeymoon that he was four years ago," Brady says, referring to the two ongoing federal investigations of the Quinn administration (though not the Governor himself per say), into a mismanaged anti-violence program known as the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, and into political hiring at the state transportation department.

"I think (Brady's) going to put it over the top," Brady says.

Credit Hannah Meisel

That Brady won 98 counties means Quinn only won four.

The Illinois Senate's Minority Leader, Christine Radogno, says for Rauner to succeed, he'll need to do better in suburban Cook County. She says that's the path to victory, and one Rauner can ride his Harley on.

"He's spending a lot of time up there, he's a known quantity," she says. "He is someone who has been participating in that area for a long time. He has not led for any social issues - not that Brady did, but that was hung around Brady's neck."

Social issues have been a hurdle for Republicans in the past. The GOP has struggled to make peace amongst themselves -- and with moderate voters -- over issues like abortion, and same-sex marriage.

Rauner tries best as he can to gloss over those.

But, perhaps more than anything, Republicans have faltered in recent years because of an apparent lack of statewide structure, or cohesion.

Democrats' power means they get more campaign contributions, which gives them more power, which gives them more money, and so goes the spiral leaving Republicans without much of either.

Rauner is upfront about his attempt at a revival.

"We are going to rebuild the Republican Party from the grassroots up, so we are strong and dominant and a powerful competitor, in every race, in every election, up and down the ballot, every cycle going forward," he said in his fair speech.

Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who's in a race against Quinn's current Lt. Gov., Sheila Simon, was once GOP state party chair. She says what's making a big difference is Rauner's money.

"Things have been better funded. And when you are able to fund things you can make things happen," she says. "And when you start early, you can start define what you want to do and do it better."

Including by giving money to candidates for the legislature.

Republicans hope the "Rauner power" will allow those further down the ballot to ride on his coattails.

Democrats would like voters to visualize those as the coattails of a tuxedo.

Though Rauner makes campaign appearances, like the one at the fair, wearing jeans and brown cowboy-esque boots, Democrats are trying to paint him as a tycoon who puts "profits" over "people."

That the Republican ballot will have State Sen. Jim Oberweis, the dairy magnate, at the top, plays right into that class warfare narrative. Oberweis is running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Dick Durbin.

"The Democrats would love to take this issue away from what the real issue is, and that's economic policies, and what the economic policies are doing to American families and Illinois families. In the last six years, the average family in Illinois is earning $5,000 less than they were earning six years ago," he says.

Even so, while the Republicans were rallying at the fairgrounds, as Rauner and other candidates greeted and glad-handed with the party faithful,Quinn was announcing that Illinois' unemployment rate is at its lowest mark since he took office -- also six years ago. He says it's a sign the state is making an economic comeback.

Voters will soon determine if Quinn has done enough to keep the Democrat's winning streak intact, or if Bruce Rauner can ride home a Republican victory.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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