CHICAGO--In my recent overview of GOP prospects in 'Big Ten Country,' I identified Illinois as one of the states where Republicans stand to make significant gains in November. Although that analysis remains intact, recent polling has shown both key statewide races very tight, including the gubernatorial race, where Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn has overcome a sizable deficit to pull into a virtual dead heat with Republican Bill Brady. Quinn’s approval rating is abysmal, he has promised to raise taxes, and he served as Rod Blagojevich’s Lt. Governor. His comeback has been largely enabled by a lackluster Brady campaign and a massive ad blitz painting Brady as a nefarious “millionaire politician.”
Several top Illinois Republican strategists I’ve spoken with are concerned, but not panicked, by Quinn’s resurgence. One well-placed source says the polling data he’s seen shows the state’s Democrats “coming home” to Quinn, and expresses misgivings about Brady’s apparent run-out-the-clock strategy. He acknowledges the Democrats’ vastly superior ground game—including a stranglehold on the Cook County machine—as another institutional advantage Quinn will enjoy on Election Day. Brady hails from downstate, which is a mixed blessing. On one hand, non-Chicagoland voters often feel neglected by the Chicago-centric Illinois political class and media and tend to gravitate toward one of their own. On the other hand, Brady cannot win without registering a strong performance in suburban and exurban Chicago.
Still, given Quinn’s questionable competence, tax increase proposals (he calls the idea that Illinois can remain solvent without raising taxes a “fantasy”), and low popularity, Brady is still well positioned to win. To do so, plugged-in Republicans say the Brady campaign and the RGA need to counter Democrats’ advertising blow for blow, and they point to four scheduled gubernatorial debates as critical proving grounds for Brady. The tagline on the anti-Brady attack ads running in the state is “Who is this guy?” If Brady can acceptably answer that question, voters will likely embrace him as a favorable alternative to Quinn. In other words, Brady must overcome the “Devil-we-don’t know” test.