The Ives of March: How Bruce Rauner was nearly taken down by “fringe candidate” Jeanne Ives

Et tu, Jeanne?

In the wake of the Illinois gubernatorial primary, Bruce Rauner’s dream headlines would have heralded him as a hero for the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” right.  Instead, we’re talking about how the primary was a catastrophic failure for the Rauner campaign. He barely held on against Jeanne Ives, the far-right Republican who nearly purity-tested an incumbent governor out of the primary.

We saw this coming after Corey Stewart in Virginia and Roy Moore in Alabama.  Trump-emulating, Bannon-supported primary challengers are undercutting mainstream Republican incumbents.  If Bannonites lose, they still drain the resources and damage the credibility of their mainstream opponents.  If they win, their campaigns have to scramble to energize moderate Republicans and independents to get out to vote.

Jeanne Ives burst onto the national political scene with a political attack ad that the Chicago Teacher’s union called “racist, sexist, and homophobic.”  It hit Rauner’s socially liberal policies as governor and called attention to wedge issues for the Republican base: gender-neutral bathrooms, abortion, sanctuary cities, unions.  Outrage over the ad did its job for Ives and drew socially conservative voters to her campaign. Ives boasted a staunchly conservative record in Congress and a background of military service as a West Point graduate.  She got the backing of Richard Uihlein, a conservative mega-donor taking leadership of the far right from Steve Bannon.  Ives was endorsed by National Review, who ran a cover story depicting Rauner as “The Worst Republican Governor in America,” and she got a boost by a Democratic Governors Association ad, calling her “just too conservative for Illinois.”

The Rauner-Ives primary is an example what we’re going to see across Republican primaries in 2018.  A mainstream Republican and a Trumpian Republican jockey for conservative credentials. Rauner set his sights on Pritzker, his likely Democratic opponent in the general, to build his primary campaign.  In the meantime, he avoided taking Ives head-on– a huge mistake. Conventional wisdom says that if he were to talk about Ives, it would legitimize her story, so it was a better strategy to ignore her. In the meantime, the groundswell of conservative Republican energy was building around Ives.  She was convincing voters that she had a better shot at winning the general because she captured the spirit of Trump. And on Election Day, she almost stole the primary from Rauner despite a huge fundraising deficit. 51.4% for Rauner. 48.6% for Ives.

Republicans have a lot of time to pick up momentum and unify their base before November.  But all advantages lie with the Democrats. Bruce Rauner, nearly unseated by a challenger to the right, must patch up his wounds quickly and face a new barrage from JB Pritzker and the Democratic party.

What’s the big takeaway for 2018?

Dave Wasserman tweeted it best.  The GOP needs to rein in a new voter coalition fast because moderates aren’t showing up to the polls.

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