In the past few years, public-sector unions have faced severe challenges to their ability to dictate pension and benefit packages to states and municipalities that are sinking the country in a sea of debt. In Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, and especially Wisconsin, Republican governors took on the unions with varying degrees of success. But after the victory of Bruce Rauner in the Illinois GOP primary on Tuesday, the prospect of another such confrontation in President Obama’s home base has turned the governor’s race in that very blue state into one of the most interesting elections of 2014.
Rauner is a millionaire businessman who has made reform of the state’s out-of-control spending policies the centerpiece of his campaign to unseat incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn. In order to win the Republican nomination, Rauner had to fend off a tough challenge from a veteran state senator who was the beneficiary of a strategic decision by the unions to try and nip the challenge to their state gravy train in the bud. But unlike other examples in which liberal Democrats have been able to pick their GOP opponents by helping weak Republicans knock off strong general-election candidates (i.e. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill’s clever gambit in which she helped the hapless Todd Akin become her opponent in 2012), this time the trick didn’t work.
As a result of Rauner’s primary win, Illinois will provide the country with a test case in which we will see whether the Democrats’ effort to make income inequality the central issue of the election can prevail over Rauner’s attempt to clean up a corrupt system in which unions have been able to raid the state treasury at will. At stake is the question of whether the cause of restoring fiscal sanity is one that is powerful enough to overturn the political balance of power in Illinois.
Rauner’s task in this race is a daunting one. Democrats have an overwhelming registration advantage in Illinois and the GOP has lost the last three gubernatorial elections. Moreover, Rauner poses a direct challenge to the state’s political establishment that will provoke a strong response not only from the unions but a Democratic machine that knows it has a lot to lose if the GOP nominee prevails.
His problems are further compounded by the fact that unlike other successful Republican governors like Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, and Chris Christie in New Jersey, Rauner is a political novice. While he cultivates an ordinary guy persona, as a wealthy businessman rather than a middle-class politician he must also face comparisons with Mitt Romney. As with President Obama’s reelection effort in 2012, Rauner’s wealth plays right into the Democratic playbook in which the GOP can be portrayed as insensitive to the needs of the middle class and the poor. Quinn’s primary night invocation of the minimum wage—Obama’s issue of the moment—indicates that this is exactly how the Democrats intend to take down Rauner.
But in a state whose political class is far more corrupt than most of the counterparts elsewhere, Rauner’s outsider status may prove impervious to the sort of class warfare tactics that have destroyed other Republicans. Moreover, by seizing the issue of taming the public-sector unions and championing lower taxes, Rauner may have found a political sweet spot that will enable him to appeal to middle and working class Democrats and independents. In a year in which big government boondoggles like ObamaCare will be front and center and Obama’s popularity has plummeted, it may be the ideal moment for a candidate who is promising to sweep Springfield clean.
While we are always rightly cautioned about over-interpreting midterm elections, a Rauner win would be a significant and perhaps final defeat for a union movement that has seen its power decline nationwide. Having failed to exact revenge on Scott Walker for demolishing union power in Wisconsin in the 2012 recall vote and with him a favorite for reelection this year, the union movement’s focus will be on stopping Rauner even if means helping a Democrat like Quinn who has not always done their bidding. If they fail, it will not only be a sign that Republicans can win on the issue of clipping back the power of unions even in a state where they have always been powerful, but a significant win for the cause of fiscal reform.