The top-line race in the Illinois primary yesterday was the Republican contest for governor. The latest returns, as I write, have 99 percent of precincts reporting, with a clear but narrow winner in the Republican primary, businessman and self-financer Bruce Rauner over state legislator Kirk Dillard 40 percent to 37 percent (all these numbers are subject to slight revision when the final figures come in).
Rauner campaigned as a stern critic of Illinois's public employee unions, which have connived with the legislature to give the state huge pension obligations, which in turn have given it the worst or second worst overhanging fiscal obligations of any state; Dillard campaigned as someone who was not blaming the public employee unions and was -- surprise -- the intended beneficiary of some late spending by the public employee unions. He served previously on the staffs of Republican Govs. James Thompson and Jim Edger -- not exactly Tea Party credentials. The incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has tried to scale back on the state's obligations, with very limited success in the state's Democratic-majority legislator; he was elected by just a 47-percent to 46-percent margin in 2010 over state Sen. Bill Brady, who finished in third place with 15 percent in Tuesday's Republican primary.
A couple of observations. First, turnout was much larger in the Republican than the Democratic primary, by 813,000 votes to 437,000 votes (rounded off to the nearest thousand) in the returns as I write. You might want to take this as a vote of no confidence in the Democratic party in the Democratic president's home state. But I think it is less significant than that. Democrats had no serious primary fights, with Quinn, Sen. Dick Durbin and most Democratic House incumbents unopposed, while Republicans had a rip-roaring primary contest for governor. Republican turnout was just a little higher than the 767,000 in 2010, while Democratic turnout in that year was 916,000 -- but Democrats then had serious primary contests for senator and governor.
Second, Rauner’s victory owed very much to his self-financed edge in television advertising, which paid off in the seven-county (Cook, DuPage, Lake, McHenry, Kane, Kendall, Will) metro Chicago area, which cast 51 percent of Republican primary votes. In metro Chicago, Brauner led Dillard 49 percent to 35 percent. In the other 95 counties — Downstate Illinois — which cast 49 percent of the statewide votes, Dillard led 40 percent to 30 percent, with significant votes for Downstate candidate Brady. Downstate Republicans seem significantly less determined for a showdown with the public employee unions than metro Chicago Republicans.
Third, what does this mean for Rauner’s chances in the general election? Quinn, despite having no primary opposition, is not in a strong position for re-election. His job approval has been low and he is regarded as an unreliable maverick by many Democrats. Rauner will certainly have money to spend and a metro Chicago focus (contrary to the Downstate focus of the 2010 nominee Brady). Rauner’s weak showing Downstate suggests he may have trouble maximizing the potential Republican vote. But the fact that a no-name candidate received 28 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary for governor suggests that Quinn may have even more trouble maximizing the potential Democratic vote — and getting core Democrats out to vote in a state with no serious Senate and few serious House contests. Quinn got lower than average percentages in Downstate counties containing Rockford, Rock Island and Moline, Alton, Peoria and Springfield, counties where a successful Democrat needs to pile up some votes in order to win statewide. He didn’t carry these counties in 2010, but won because of heavy black and Hispanic turnout in metro Chicago. Can he count on that again?
Bottom line: The Democratic president’s home state may very well elect a Republican governor, and the state with some of the most intransigent public employee unions may end up with a governor who at least says he wants to break their death grip on state finances.