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What Bruce Rauner Can Teach His Fellow Republicans

What Bruce Rauner Can Teach His Fellow Republicans

By Tom Bevan - November 7, 2014

See if this script sounds familiar: An incumbent Democrat with sagging approval ratings and a sluggish economy runs for re-election against a wealthy Republican businessman.

The Republican is slimed as a greedy “vulture capitalist” who wants to give tax breaks to his billionaire buddies while shafting the middle class. The Republican describes the Democrat as a career politician whose lack of private-sector experience gives him no clue how to create jobs except by feeding the maw of Big Government. 

That was the 2012 presidential campaign. It’s also the 2014 Illinois governor’s race. No contest on Tuesday was more similar to the 2012 national election between President Obama and Mitt Romney than the battle between Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Bruce Rauner -- except for the final outcome. After many months of intense campaigning and some $100 million in attack ads, heading into Election Day the polls were split and the race was considered a true tossup. Yet in the end, Rauner carried solidly blue Illinois with relative ease, winning 51 percent to 46 percent.

How did he do it? For starters, Rauner benefited -- as did Republicans across the country -- from a midterm electorate more conservative (and older and whiter) than the electorate that went to the polls two years ago.

Rauner also benefited from the undeniable fact that, when it comes to campaigning, Pat Quinn is no Barack Obama.

But Bruce Rauner also turned out to be different from Mitt Romney, especially in one key respect. Rauner actively campaigned for minority votes. In 2012, Romney not only alienated Latino voters with his absurd “self-deportation” immigration policy, he also reportedly dismissed running mate Paul Ryan’s pleas to campaign in black and Hispanic neighborhoods in America’s inner cities. Romney sided with handlers and campaign consultants who thought the whole idea was a waste of the campaign’s most valuable resource, which is time.

Rauner took a different approach. During the hard-fought campaign, he spent a good deal of time on the South Side of Chicago, listening to African-Americans and courting endorsements from prominent black business leaders and pastors.

Rauner, too, heard from those who proclaimed this a wasted effort. He wasn’t going to change any minds, these critics told him, and he should spend his time campaigning where the votes were truly up for grabs.

On the surface, the critics were proven right.  Rauner received only 7 percent of the African-American vote Tuesday, just one percentage point better than Republican Bill Brady received four years earlier en route to losing to Quinn by 32,000 votes (out of 3.5 million ballots cast) during another banner Republican year.

But that only tells part of the story. Rauner outperformed Brady by four points in the city of Chicago (21 percent-17 percent), by five points in the Cook County suburbs (45-40 percent), by seven points in the collar counties (60-53) and by 15 points in urban areas overall (37-22).

Rauner also ran better than Brady by five points among Democrats (13-8), by 11 points among those who had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party (29-18) and by 13 points among self-described moderates (52-39), a group that composed almost half of the electorate on Tuesday (46 percent).

Rauner won by generating much broader appeal than Brady did among moderates, city dwellers, suburbanites, and Democrats. It’s impossible to say precisely how much his outreach efforts to minorities contributed to his broadened appeal among those groups, but it’s apparent that it helped.

In other words, even though Rauner’s outreach didn’t win over many African-Americans this year, it wasn’t a waste of time. For one thing, part of the equation in making sincere minority outreach is making Republican candidates palatable to white swing voters who are receptive to a conservative appeal -- but only if it contains no hint of racism.

It took decades for the party to find itself in dire straits with African-American voters, and it will take years of diligent campaigning in black neighborhoods before the GOP becomes competitive again.  But putting in the effort with minorities pays dividends with other groups, and helps change the perception of the party overall, something most Republicans agree the party needs to do if it wants to ever retake the White House.

Mitt Romney didn’t understand this, even if his running mate did. Sen. Rand Paul gets it, too. If Paul’s Republican colleagues are uneasy following the Kentucky senator into the GOP’s famed “big tent,” maybe they can take their cue from the governor-elect of Illinois. The Republicans’ first president came from that state, as did the Democrats’ current president. It’s a good place for a fresh start.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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