By Rich Miller
“He was a god in that district,” a high-level Rauner guy told me about state Sen. Sam McCann’s poll numbers from before this year’s Republican primary campaign began.
Benchmark polling taken months ago showed McCann, R-Plainview, had a voter approval rating of about 70 percent. McCann “really was everywhere” in the district, attending events all over the place throughout his tenure, the Rauner official admitted.
Looking at those initial numbers, “you’d have to be crazy” to take McCann on, the official said. But the governor had threatened to punish any Republican who voted with AFSCME on a now infamous bill which barred a state employee strike and instead forced binding arbitration. McCann was the only Republican to vote against Rauner, so a massive game plan was devised.
What followed was the most expensive Republican legislative primary race in the history of Illinois. In the past, the million dollars or so raised and spent by and on behalf of McCann would’ve dropped jaws everywhere. But McCann’s $1 million was less than a quarter of the race’s $4.2 million grand total.
Aside from the fact that beating any incumbent who starts off beloved by 7 in 10 voters is almost impossible, some folks think McCann’s opposition actually spent too much money. They claim that after the first $1 million, the rest was all white noise and may have prompted voters to start wondering just what in the heck was going on.
McCann never directly rebutted the allegations from the other side’s dogged research into his mileage reimbursements or his personal financial problems and claimed but nonexistent military service, but he did have an answer for voters who wondered why their television screens were filled to the brim with anti-McCann ads: “Chicago.”
“I’m being attacked because I did what was right for this district,” McCann said in what became a ubiquitous TV ad at the same time a “Chicago PAC spends $1.5 million against McCann” headline flashed across the screen. The ad started airing weeks before the total climbed to more than double that amount.
Benton, McCann’s opponent, never really established himself with voters as a hometown guy. That lack of biographical information probably bolstered McCann’s “Chicago” claim.
The “Chicago” attack worked in another race, Team Rauner admits. They used it themselves to beat back state Sen. Kyle McCarter’s GOP congressional bid against U.S Rep. John Shimkus. McCarter didn’t have more than a few dollars, so most voters had no idea who he was. Shimkus’ campaign defined him as a Chicago-loving guy. Shimkus never polled above 55 percent, but he wound up with 60.
Raunerite fingers are also angrily pointing at the “regulars” in the Sangamon County Republican Party who stuck with McCann to the end. McCann actually lost Sangamon by a few votes, but they say he would’ve lost by more if the party leaders had stuck with Rauner.
The reasons those party folks stood with McCann are twofold: 1) He’d built up a lot of goodwill and 2) Thousands of unionized state employees in the county are reliable Republican voters.
“If McCann loses, it won’t be due to a lack of volunteers on election day,” a union staffer texted me the morning of election day. “I’m not kidding when I say I’ve never seen a campaign have to adapt because of so many volunteers,” he texted a few hours later.
Those Springfield-area state workers have their own informal but vast communications network. They talk politics with coworkers, and then they bring informed opinions to their homes and their social circles. It worked two years ago when they thumped Bruce Rauner in Sangamon County, and it worked again this time when they helped carry McCann across the finish line.
The question now becomes how the Republicans retool their message for November. The McCann primary had been expected to be a preview of what’s to come. Unprecedented money from Rauner, charges that an incumbent is House Speaker Michael Madigan’s “favorite” legislator and brutally unflinching opposition research. But, just like McCann, most targeted Democrats have built up enormous local goodwill over the years.
Rauner and Proft’s money and effort won numerous primary races around Illinois this year where the opponents were little-known and relatively lightly funded. Those often hapless opponents could be defined almost at will. But, like with McCann, Rauner’s top targeted House Democratic incumbents won’t be so easy to redefine.