Subtitle: “Bruce Rauner and The Case of the Disturbing Checkbook”
Pennsylvania is a swing state.
Now, when we say this in politics, it can mean a number of different things. It can mean that the people tend to be moderate, or it can mean that the people are evenly split between conservative and liberal, or a number of other possible mixes too. In any case, it means that the state is winnable for either party in most election years (if the polls are kept reasonably free of the Democratic vote fraud that plagues so many of our big cities, anyway).
If you look at the list of Pennsylvania governors over the past century, you’re surprised at how evenly distributed the victories have been. A Republican, then a Democrat. Two Republicans, then two Democrats. Back and forth the state has flipped, from the Philadelphia liberals to the conservative Republicans outstate.
It’s surprisingly similar to Illinois in this regard, in fact, as our little northwest corner’s Chicagoland serves as an unfortunate counterweight to the much wiser Republican area that we call “downstate Illinois.” An evenly balanced electorate means that either party can win statewide elections, if they run the right candidate and campaign well.
In 2002, the state of Pennsylvania was in a challenging, but not bad, position. Republican Dick Thornburgh had held the governor’s mansion for two terms in the 1980s, then Democrat Bob Casey held it for two terms from the late 80s into the 90s, and then Republican Tom Ridge was elected to two terms in the late 90s and into the 2000s.
But then there was a monkey wrench, thrown by the islamofascist attacks of September 11, 2001. The nation’s capital decided to create a new federal Department of Homeland Security… and President George W. Bush decided that Pennsylvania’s incumbent governor, Tom Ridge, would be perfect for the new post of DHS Secretary. This left the governor’s mansion in the hands of the popular – but perhaps not popular enough? – Mark Schweiker.
While the GOP leadership liked Governor Schweiker, the state’s movers and shakers knew that 2002 would be a tough election year, so they decided to run the state’s popular conservative Attorney General, Mike Fisher, for governor. Fisher had won two statewide elections for AG already, and it was a proven launching point in many states, so it made sense. Their own former governor Dick Thornburgh, for example, had served as the nation’s AG under Presidents Reagan and Bush… the role is identified with solid executive authority. It’s a great resume for a gubernatorial candidate.
2002 was a tough year for Republicans nationally, however, and Mike Fisher lost. Ed Rendell, Mayor of Philadelphia, won the Democrat nomination, and early money helped the left-wing Ed Rendell beat him, (the first Philadelphia official to win the office in nearly a century, in fact), 53.4% to 44.4%.
While this is certainly a sizable defeat, it’s not a 70/30 kind of thing, as many races are these days. The magic number was five percent; if the last five percent who ended up deciding on Rendell had voted for Fisher, it would have been Fisher’s night instead.
Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell won the Democrat primary, and immediately, money started coming in from all over the country. The Democrats naturally wanted to make the most of a midterm election under the opposing party’s president – that’s normal – and the swing states in Republican hands got their focus. By choosing to run an incumbent who had won two statewide elections already, the Republicans had ensured that the Democrats would have to spend money to beat him.
The Democrats were willing to do it. They were running the chairman of the DNC, after all; every likely donor to any Democrat campaign knew who he was. Ed Rendell was the Terry McAuliffe, Howard Dean, Tim Kaine, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of his time, but even so, flipping a governor’s mansion isn’t easy… especially in a state notorious for punishing the Philadelphia elites at the ballot box. A study of statistics would say that Rendell’s chances were slim, despite all the connections he brought to the table.
Chicago businessman Bruce Rauner, principal with GTCR LLC, a financial management firm, wrote Ed Rendell two checks that we know of – a $200,000 check very early in the race, and another $100,000 nearer the election. This $300,000 total, a windfall from an out-of-state businessman with huge state contracts with Pennsylvania (which doubled during the Rendell administration), certainly helped Ed Rendell win that election.
We have the advantage of hindsight today. We know that Ed Rendell won two terms, and became something of a rock star among Democrats as a result. He’s interviewed on the talk shows, he gives speeches, he’s a mover and shaker still. Knowing that Rendell won, this donation can appear an understandable contribution in a world of pay-to-play government contracting.
At the time, however, it was no such thing.
2002 was not the typical midterm election, in which the president’s party always takes a drubbing. 1996, 1998, and 2000 were not landslide elections, so there was no multitude of lucky Republican winners in Congress to turn out in 2002. President Bush was generally respected for his management of the post-9/11 foreign policy arena, so the November General election was a generally proper one: the better candidates with money who worked hard would win, without much of a national tide on either side to interfere.
In this environment, Attorney General Mike Fisher could be expected to do well.
Unfortunately for Pennsylvania and the country, however, Ed Rendell was able to pull in the kind of early money, spent well, that did damage against the conservative sitting state attorney general. Plenty of Republicans worked hard for Mike Fisher, but he was outspent 3 to 1 in a terribly expensive $50 million election season.
Putting $300,000.00 in context
What does Bruce Rauner’s $300,000 for Ed Rendell mean in this context? As an out-of-state person, Mr. Rauner would not have been expected to give a penny, so the $300,000 was gravy to the Rendell campaign. But we should look at it differently, to get the full impact.
As a big state contractor, Rendell’s campaign was reported to have “hoped for” $50,000 or so. When they got $200,000 at first, and yet another $100,000 later, it was reported to have surprised them. So, even accepting the idea of Rauner being a supporter and donor of left-wing Democrat Rendell, there’s still $250,000 of gravy for the Rendell campaign, unexpected and helpful in their goal of burying AG Fisher.
Radio ads in Pennsylvania, as in every state, run the gamut from cheap to expensive, with pricing ranging from under a hundred dollars per spot to several hundred. Think of what this $300,000 meant to the Rendell campaign. It was (or could have been) a thousand $300 radio ads… or three thousand $100 radio ads. Ads that Ed Rendell could use to bury Mike Fisher in the polls, early on, so that Fisher could never recover. Do you realize the impact of a media onslaught like that?
Or we can look at it another way. Bruce Rauner had no personal reason to be involved in Pennsylvania politics, but if he chose to – and he certainly could – as a Republican (yes, he says he both is and was a Republican), then it would make sense for him to donate to Republican Mike Fisher, not left-wing Democrat Ed Rendell.
Bruce Rauner is telling Illinois conservatives today that he’s one of them, that Bruce Rauner is a conservative, constitutional , small-government guy.
Well, that’s exactly what Mike Fisher is! Bruce Rauner didn’t HAVE to meddle in another state’s gubernatorial election, but if he chose to, why didn’t he help out Mike Fisher, the candidate most like the Illinois conservatives whom Rauner is currently asking for a nomination?
Think back to 2002 in Illinois. The Illinois GOP was stuck with the lackluster moderate Jim Ryan for a nominee; we would have loved to have a more dynamic, popular candidate like Mike Fisher at the top of our ticket. Bruce Rauner’s lack of excitement over the Illinois governor’s race might be understandable; we can see why he’d look for another state with a good Republican candidate worth helping.
Mike Fisher would have made sense. Rauner’s money would have been critical assistance to the outspent Fisher, and might have helped to stanch the bleeding as Rendell’s special interest money and union in-kind contributions started racking up. If Rauner had donated heavily to Mike Fisher, it would have been a logical and helpful act by a real Republican.
But that’s not what happened. Bruce Rauner, the alleged conservative Republican, bankrolled left-winger Ed Rendell against the conservative Republican Mike Fisher. This means that we shouldn’t look at the money as $300,000 at all.
Since he should have donated to Fisher instead, one can argue that this gift was an effective donation of $600,000 to Rendell: the $300,000 he gave Rendell, plus the $300,000 he denied Fisher by doing so.
If he liked Rendell, while really being a conservative at heart as he claims, he could have been justified in staying out of the race entirely. “Look,” he could say, “I like you, but I’m a Republican… so, tell ya what, I just won’t donate to Fisher. I’d be happy with either of you winning.” A peculiar position in a race in which the two candidates disagreed on virtually everything imaginable, but this argument has been given by other big money donors in the past. Rendell probably would even have been grateful.
But Bruce Rauner didn’t say that. He just wrote checks. $300,000 to one of the nation’s most prominent leftists, to help usher the Democrats back into the Pennsylvania governer’s mansion.
That may make Rauner the single most influential person in the distant Pennsylvania election that cost the GOP a critical governorship and did untold damage in the years since. Eight years of Ed Rendell at the helm enabled the Democrat vote machine to make Pennsylvania more winnable for the Democrats in national elections; even though Republican former AG Tom Corbett flipped the governor’s mansion again in 2010 and won it back, Rendell’s machine helped deliver Pennsylvania for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. How might those elections have gone if Rendell hadn’t had those two terms in the governor’s mansion, with Bruce Rauner’s help?
Interpreting the story in 2014
Bruce Rauner tells us today that he’s a Republican. In fact, he tells us that he’s a conservative, a populist, the kind of guy whom good Reaganites, good tea partiers, good movement conservatives should support without a question.
But we know better. In the best possible test case in Bruce Rauner’s personal history, one that would be viewed by a scientist as a “double blind test” since his participation was by no means necessary (he didn’t know either candidate personally, and didn’t live in the state) Rauner chose to help the ultra-left-wing Ed Rendell for governor against the platform Republican Mike Fisher, helping to give the Democrats one more huge plum on Election Day.
Illinois Republicans have learned to give candidates the benefit of the doubt, to forgive the occasional wandering off the reservation on controversial issues, even to forgive clumsy statements or painful personal foibles.
But this isn’t the average forgivable flaw. Reaching across state lines to bankroll Ed Rendell over Mike Fisher is like supporting Lawton Chiles over Jeb Bush in Florida in 1994… like supporting Tom Barrett over Scott Walker in Wisconsin in 2010… like supporting Carter against Reagan in 1980.
Giving $300,000 to a progressive big city mayor, a Democrat’s Democrat and the head of their national party… and then mustering up the gall to call yourself a Republican, and to seek the Republican party’s nomination for governor of Illinois? Not even apologizing for it as a mistake, but trying to convince conservatives that he supported Ed Rendell because – get this - he thought that the sitting national shop steward of the union-owned-and-controlled Democratic National Party would “stand up to unions” if he won???
There’s only one word for that. Unforgivable.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. A lifetime Republican, he has served as a precinct captain and minor party leader in both Illinois and Wisconsin, including one term as chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party in the mid-1990s. He has never had $300,000 to donate to anybody, but if he did, he sure wouldn’t have given it to Ed Rendell.
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