Illinois is poised to send a new Governor to Springfield. He’s a native Chicagoan, closely allied to Rahm Emanuel, who is pro-choice, completely disinterested in social issues, and deeply tied into Chicago’s political class. And he is a Republican.
Bruce Rauner is a Republican from a bygone era, a pragmatist whose primary goal is to make state government function effectively again in a place where it has nearly collapsed. Democrats have found nothing so far to criticize beyond the fact that he’s wealthy. He’s held a solid polling lead from the very beginning and with no vulnerability to Akin-esque gaffes there is little chance he’ll blow his advantage.
As Republicans nationally are bogged down by the outsized influence of a small but aggressive extremist base, the Rauner era in Illinois might signal a turning point. The election will only be the beginning. Blue state Republicans have attempted this move before, with more disappointment than success. The question is whether Rauner will resemble Christie, or will he fall into the trap that swallowed Scott Walker, Rick Scott and Tom Corbett? In other words, can Rauner govern in the same way he has campaigned?
Regardless of Rauner’s own tendencies, there is one important fact that might keep him solidly in bi-partisan territory after November. Like Christie and unlike Walker, Scott and Corbett, Rauner will be presiding over a solidly Democratic legislature. He will accomplish nothing without compromise and coalition building. There is much to accomplish and he has ample opportunity to establish support among Democratic lawmakers.
There are two relatively un-ideological problems that sit at the heart of Illinois’ ills. Decades of corrupt political deals between public employee unions and the Democratic machine have saddled the state with unfunded obligations it can never meet. A recent 66% personal income tax hike, accompanied by massive corporate tax hikes briefly pasted over the problem, just enough to keep schools open and government functioning. Meanwhile the state’s hostile business culture dampens the potential of an economy that should be surging.
The second problem is the father of the first one. The entire state government is beholden to a very small junta in Springfield that governs with almost no outside input. Block grants are their signature tactic. The House and Senate leadership maintains almost dictatorial control over an increasingly restive legislature. In state that quite literally cannot pay its bills, funds keep flowing to politically favored recipients through unaccountable ‘grants’ doled out by the leadership.
Members on either side of the political aisle struggle to get bills paid to school districts and other government entities while money continues to flow to well-connected interests. A pragmatic Republican Governor unburdened by an unpopular culture-war agenda would be perfectly positioned to drive a wedge between the legislative leadership and back-benchers in both parties. If Rauner governs with the same discipline he’s shown on the campaign trail, he could blow apart the awkward Cullerton-Madigan alliance that controls the State Assembly and change the long term direction of the state politically and economically.
Along the way, Rauner could outline a new, post-culture war path to victory for Republicans at the national level. A political appeal premised on religion and white cultural fears no longer fits the realities on the ground. As the country grows more urban, secular, and culturally diverse, older Republican themes of pragmatic, fiscally accountable government are squarely at the center of public concern.
Freed from the constraints of a rabid, Tea Party base, Rauner will have a unique opportunity to govern in ways that make sense. What happens in Illinois over the next few years may be the best weather vane for the future direction of the country and the Republican Party.