CHICAGO (AP) — At first blush, Illinois would seem to be a lock for an incumbent Democratic governor: The population leans left. Democrats control most of state government, and this year's race is likely to turn on the Chicago area, one of the few places President Barack Obama can still bring large crowds to their feet.
But Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is battling to survive against Bruce Rauner, a wealthy businessman Republicans are banking on to exploit the state's deep economic problems and reputation for cronyism. If he wins, the victory would help complete a near-sweep of the Midwest by the GOP.
The stakes, amid a tough midterm election climate, worried Democrats enough that they shifted to an "Obama-style" campaign, employing a strategy the president used in key battlegrounds in 2008 and 2012. It wasn't seen as necessary in Obama's home state — until now.
Quinn, the often-folksy Chicago Democrat who has campaigned with his 97-year-old mother, notes that he also was counted out four years ago but eked out a win. Known as a tireless campaigner, he's held his own despite the state's many crises and assures voters he will power through to Election Day.
"I ain't sleepin'," he says.
Rauner, who's sunk more than $25 million into his own campaign, has blasted Quinn over Illinois' massive budget problems and a plan to make a temporary income tax increase permanent. The first-time candidate also has tried to cast doubt on Quinn's claims he cleaned up state government after taking over for imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
"I can't be bought, bribed or intimidated," Rauner says.
Republicans see Illinois as a chance to not only pick up a governorship but also to deliver "a real gut punch" to Obama and his party, said Michael Short, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. He and other Republicans say winning would send a clear message that even voters in Obama's home state no longer embrace his policies.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, disagreed that the race between Quinn and Rauner is a referendum on the president's agenda.
But he acknowledged that if Quinn loses, some will see it as a loss for Obama, who came to Chicago earlier this month to campaign for Quinn, then cast his ballot for him and rallied volunteers at a campaign field office. First lady Michelle Obama also stumped for Quinn, as did Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"There clearly is an investment in Quinn's candidacy," Durbin said.
Quinn and other Democrats have campaigned as defenders of the middle class, supporting policies such as an increase in the minimum wage — which Obama also vigorously promotes — and painting Rauner as an out-of-touch multimillionaire who belongs to a $140,000 wine club.
A series of Quinn ads have picked apart deals made by Rauner's private-equity firm, accusing him of outsourcing jobs, putting investments in the Cayman Islands and slashing expenses at a chain of nursing homes so deeply that residents died.
Quinn has also been helped by organized labor, which saw Rauner's early anti-union comments as a sign he could try to curtail government unions the way Gov. Scott Walker did in Wisconsin. Though Rauner has toned down his rhetoric since the primary, unions have continued spending millions to defeat him.
Even before the race became heated, Illinois' top Democrats were collaborating on a plan to counter the typical drop in turnout among the party's base in midterm elections and the historically bad results for a president's party during his final term.
They're using what Durbin calls an "Obama-style model," a coordinated campaign that makes heavy use of both public and private data to identify which voters are most likely to support Quinn and other Democrats and then get them to the polls. Campaigns have used the systems for years — the Illinois GOP has its own voter-information effort — but it was Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns that are credited with fine-tuning it to great success, and Durbin says Illinois Democrats are using lessons learned from those campaigns.
The strategy also focuses heavily on absentee and early voting, with special emphasis on college campuses. The Democrat-controlled Legislature this spring extended early voting and gave the OK to same-day voter registration and on-campus Election Day absentee voting.
Republicans have faced some setbacks, such as when lawyers for top Democrats successfully argued for the Illinois Supreme Court to throw out a Rauner-backed term limits proposal that his campaign had hoped would help get his supporters to the polls.
But they say they're implementing their own efforts to increase turnout, and they feel good about their candidate — and their odds.
Follow Sara Burnett at http://twitter.com/sara_burnett