Speculating about why politicians do the things they do is a favorite pasttime of political junkies and activists. And for the past few weeks, a hot topic among the conservative base of Illinois Republicans has been why two of their most well-known and like-minded associates, Steve Rauschenberger and Joe Birkett, chose to abandon gubernatorial bids to team up as candidates for lieutenant governor with two people who hold polar opposite positions on social issues.
The general consensus is that both Rauschenberger and Birkett, although professionally well-qualified and graced with bona fide conservative credentials, were forced into the secondary role because they were unable to tap into the funding sources each needed to win back the Governor’s Mansion for Republicans.
For Steve Rauschenberger, the issue was just a little more complicated. He took time to share with Illinois Review a few Saturdays ago the inside story of how he came to his final decision to climb on the Ron Gidwitz for Governor ‘06 campaign.
The senator’s recollections of the past fourteen months simply spelled out a campaign strategy that ultimately didn’t get the traction needed for him to become governor of Illinois in 2006.
The decision to run statewide again
“In November of 2004, I sat with my brother and my wife and a friend and talked about whether or not there was an opportunity to take the progress we had made in the U.S. Senate race and to commit it to a run for governor against Rod Blagojevich,” Rauschenberger said.
Being he was ending a term as state senator, running for governor would mean he would need to forego re-election in 2006.
The conclusion they came to was that maybe such a run for governor would be a long shot, but during the 2004 U.S. Senate bid Rauschenberger had scooped up a majority of the state’s editorial board endorsements and had done “extraordinarily well” in gaining the support of his GOP legislative colleagues. He ended up a close third in the primary without funds to buy crucial Chicago television ads.
The $$$ obstacle
“Our weakness in the U.S. Senate race was fundraising,” Rauschenberger, a former partner in a family-owned furniture business, said. Without his own millions to invest in a campaign, the fulltime lawmaker from Elgin would need strong financial backing to make a credible run. The search for funders who would write checks for a minimum of $5,000 began, and Rauschenberger says he met with over 400 community and business leaders in one-on-one meetings, 150 of which signed on to support his campaign.
“All the while, we were looking for one or two financial angels who would have an interest in reforming the Republican Party, and commit to helping us raise the money needed,” he said.
Objections to supporting Rauschenberger ranged from “Republicans can’t win,” to “We’re afraid there could be retribution from the Democrats if we support you” to “How can you pull together the conservatives when there are two other conservatives in the race?”
“But I didn’t hear ‘I won’t support you because you are a conservative,’” Rauschenberger said, insisting big money donors aren’t ideologically biased against those who have voting records in support of traditional family values. They want to invest in winners.
So while successfully raising almost $1.2 million, Rauschenberger said he began meeting with conservative leaders and GOP county chairman throughout the state, encouraging them to take a look at the gubernatorial race early.
The conservative challenge
“If conservatives can coalesce around a candidate, we can give the candidates the credibility he or she needs to win,” Rauschenberger said, citing as an example U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald’s run in 1998.
But as Jim Oberweis, Bill Brady, Joe Birkett and Patrick O'Malley's names continued to circulate as possible candidates, Rauschenberger had a difficult time garnering the support of conservatives. Brady grasped the endorsement of a conservative summit in September, but many conservatives balked at the conclusion and the movement still has not decided on its candidate.
And things beyond Rauschenberger's influence and control undercut the campaign plan, he said. His frustration showed as he relived the last few months of 2005 while talking to IR.
“If someone would have told me a year ago in this effort that we would face a prominent congressman, Ray LaHood, toying with the idea of running for governor, and that to be followed by eight weeks of Jim Edgar toying with the idea of running for governor,” Rauschenberger continued, “and have that followed by Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, which galvanized America, and led to almost no fundraising by any candidate in the field, only to have it all wind up with the late appearance of a reluctant Judy Baar-Topinka, I would have said that you were crazy, that it could never happen. But that’s exactly what went on last year.”
After all that, the campaign decided to make a major investment with the funds they had raised to send out over 750,000 mail pieces and make over 450,000 automated phone calls to Republicans who had voted in the last three elections. The investment was a gamble to see if the activity would cause any movement in the polls, he said.
The beginning of the end of a governor's race
Before any results could be fully realized, the IL GOP called together the gubernatorial candidates to discuss a poll they had taken in November. In early December, potential candidates would begin officially filing to be on the March 2006 primary ballot.
The meeting called by the ILGOP had two purposes, Rauschenberger said: one, to ask the GOP gubernatorial candidates to sign code of ethics statement similar to the one signed when each of them declared their candidacies, and two, to ask some of the candidates to rethink their personal ambitions and consider moving to a different spot on the ballot.
Not only were the candidates asked to commit to endorsing whoever won the March 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary, but also agree not to discuss their opponents’ sexual orientation during the campaign.
All five of the GOP gubernatorial candidates -- dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, State Senator Bill Brady, Helene Curtis’ CEO Ron Gidwitz, Judy Baar-Topinka as well as Senator Rauschenberger -- sat down with John McGovern (representing U.S. House Speaker Denny Hastert), GOP House Minority Leader Tom Cross, IL GOP chairman Andy McKenna and businessman Ed Brennan (representing the state party’s finance committee). Downstate Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson was available via speaker phone.
When asked to sign the code of ethics, an intense 45 minute discussion ensued in which both Gidwitz and Oberweis insisted on party leadership reform.
“What good is signing this code of ethics, when we haven’t cleaned up our own party?” Gidwitz asked the panel, Rauschenberger said. “Are we ready to ask our national party committeeman Bob Kjellander to step aside?”
Then McKenna shared the results of a survey commissioned by the ILGOP and handed to each candidate a slip of paper with his or her own polling results. Then he projected on a screen that Judy Baar-Topinka had 38% of the support of the 205 Republicans polled.
McKenna then went back over the last two election primaries when in 2002 Jim Ryan’s gubernatorial primary polling results stayed the same after five months, as did Jack Ryan’s in the 2004 U.S. Senate race. In both cases, the front-runner in November was the front-runner the following March. McKenna asked the candidates to think about the information over the weekend and he hoped they would voluntarily work out a solution among themselves that would be best for the party.
Rauschenberger left the meeting frustrated, he admitted. He was disappointed that while none of the other panel members made their positions clear, that McKenna and Brennan believed that Topinka was the only candidate who could beat Blagojevich.
The Downstate fate sealing
Rauschenberger said he considered the poll, but determined to stay in the race and while driving downstate that evening, he began calling 41 Downstate county chairmen to round up straw poll votes for the following Sunday. He was hopeful that he would make a good showing as he had been widely supported by Downstate GOP county chairmen during the U.S. Senate race. He was confident he would have at least fifteen votes in the straw poll, a respectable number early on in the race.
After addressing the chairmen’s meeting that Sunday, Rauschenberger recalled that he met with Bill Brady.
“Brady and I shared the same problems, questions as to whether we could raise the resources,” he said. “Although I had more name recognition, it just became clear a Brady-Rauschenberger or Rauschenberger-Brady ticket was not possible.”
That evening driving home, Rauschenberger learned that he had received only three votes at the chairmen’s straw poll.
“I was crushed,” he said. “Judy Baar-Topinka won the county chairmen’s support in the most conservative part of the state.”
Rauschenberger attributed the sudden shift in the county chairmen’s support to the IL GOP’s polling results that had hit the media.
“The straw poll really caused me to reflect on what I had been saying, that the conservatives needed to coalesce and maybe I was part of the reason why they couldn’t coalesce,” he said. “And my colleagues couldn’t get involved in my race as they had in the U.S. Senate race because another senator was in the race.”
“We had tried hard, people had been generous and gracious to me, and we could not find that businessman or that conservative leader who was willing to share with me the responsibility of putting together a finance effort to give me the opportunity to be competitive,” Rauschenberger said. “I considered whether or not I could be the problem. . .”
On the rest of the drive home, Rauschenberger soul-searched and then after discussing the weekend’s events with his wife Betty, he put in a call to Ron Gidwitz.
“The rest is history . . .” Rauschenberger said.
In the second part of IR's interview, Rauschenberger will explain why he chose LG over an attempt at succeeding Topinka as state treasurer and why he chose to run with Ron Gidwitz over Brady or Oberweis.