Pritzker, Rauner storm the suburbs in battle for swing voters
It's July 29 and Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker is posing for photos at the Aurora Puerto Rican Heritage Day parade. Come July 31, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is hobnobbing with village officials in Hoffman Estates.
The appearances weren't isolated ones during a barnstorming July that revealed a power struggle between the two gubernatorial rivals for the soul of the suburbs.
The Nov. 6 election "will be won or lost with the suburban/collar county vote," Democratic former state Sen. Bill Morris of Grayslake predicted.
In 2014, Rauner defeated former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn with a big assist from DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties. The Chicago region contributed 62 percent of statewide votes for governor in 2014. Without Chicago, the suburbs generated 44 percent of ballots cast in Illinois.
"I think (Rauner) knows the suburbs are his base ... and he's shoring up that support," said Aaron Del Mar, Cook County Republican Central Committee deputy chairman.
"The suburbs play a pivotal role in all elections in Illinois, but this is also no ordinary election," Pritzker campaign manager Anne Caprara said.
Pritzker and Rauner, who face Libertarian Kash Jackson of Antioch in the general election, had a combined 24 local campaign stops last month.
Here's a sampling.
Rauner powered through the Arlington Heights and Downers Grove parades July 4, hung out at the Punjab Sports and Cultural Club Chicago festival in Elk Grove Village July 8, talked taxes with a senior in Des Plaines July 9, touted Japan-Illinois relations in Schaumburg July 10, and toured a fire truck factory in Itasca July 26.
"Wonderful sports day at the Punjab Sports & Cultural Club," Rauner said on Twitter.
Pritzker listened to a community choir in Crystal Lake July 3, talked taxes with Anderson's Bookshop owners in Naperville July 20, cradled a baby at the Lake County Fair July 28, mingled at the Tri-Cities Picnic in Geneva July 29, then hit the DuPage County Fair an hour later.
"Had a blast at the Tri-Cities Summer Picnic!" Pritzker said on Twitter.
What is it that makes suburban pie-eating contests such a destination for mega-rich sophisticates like Hyatt hotel heir Pritzker, a Chicagoan, and Rauner, an investment banker from Winnetka?
Reason No. 1 "is the raw number of independent/swing voters in the collar counties," Morris said.
For example, DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will counties voted for Democrats Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 but backed Rauner in 2014.
"Don't think the governor is taking anything for granted," said Republican Joseph Gomez, a Northfield banker and tollway director appointed by Rauner.
"He is prepared to campaign for every vote he can get."
Meanwhile, "if there is a voter to be found, we will find them," Caprara said.
"We are seeing Democrats pounding the pavement and energized to win in all 102 counties, including red districts where Democrats haven't been competitive before."
Another lure for Pritzker and Rauner is that collar county turnout is typically higher compared to elsewhere during nonpresidential election years, analysts say.
Moreover, referendums and dog fights like the 6th Congressional District race between Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam and Democrat Sean Casten will draw voters to polls.
Both men have unleashed a volley of attack ads -- Pritzker painting the governor as failed, Rauner linking his opponent to the Chicago Democratic machine and powerful Speaker Michael Madigan.
"Rauner is betting the store on an anti-Madigan, anti-Chicago backlash against Pritzker in the collars, so Pritzker is trying to combat that with heightened visibility," Morris said.
Pritzker has eight collar-county offices including Gurnee, Naperville, Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet. Rauner's campaign did not disclose numbers or locations of satellites.
Some strategists fear the constant barrage of toxic messages could backfire, turning off moderate suburban Republicans that Rauner needs and dampening enthusiasm among Democrats who backed Pritzker's more liberal primary opponents.
That's why Rauner's firing up the business base in Itasca and Pritzker is picnicking in Geneva.
"I think the governor correctly recognizes the importance of the suburbs to his campaign and he understands this is time well spent," said Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico, a Rauner supporter.
Pritzker is "trying to connect. ... He has been very sincere about reaching across to everyday Illinois citizens," Democratic organizer Ken Beal of Lisle said.
A final reason for the suburban surge is bragging rights. With the future of the presidency looming large, both candidates want their coattails to decide the fate of congressional seats in play like the 6th District.
Pritzker "has focused on rebuilding the infrastructure of the Democratic Party not just to beat Bruce Rauner but to elect Democrats up and down the ticket and across Illinois," Caprara said.
Del Mar, of Palatine, said the suburban sweep is far from over "with many undecideds left to go."
"Lots of baseball left," he added.