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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016 12:19 am

What’s keeping Democrats awake at night?

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
The Republicans have been saying behind the scenes that they have put four Democratic state Senators “on the bubble” – Tom Cullerton in DuPage County, Melinda Bush in Lake County, Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant in Will County and Gary Forby in southern Illinois.

Understandably, Senate President John Cullerton does not agree.

“If it wasn’t for Donald Trump maybe four would be on the bubble,” Cullerton told me the other day.

Cullerton claimed that the one-two punch of Trump and Gov. Bruce Rauner was hurting Republicans in contested districts everywhere. “Downstate, Trump’s popular,” he admitted, “But Rauner’s not.” In Sen. Forby’s heavily targeted district, Cullerton said, “Rauner’s hated down there.”

People in Forby’s district may have voted for Rauner two years ago, but, in reality, Cullerton claimed, “They were voting against Pat Quinn.” And the same goes, he said, for the contested neighboring open seat race currently held by retiring Sen. Dave Luechtefeld (R-Okawville).

In the suburbs, Cullerton said, Rauner and Trump are both very unpopular. “Maybe Trump is a bit more unpopular,” he averred. But that still works to the Democrats’ advantage, Cullerton said.

Noting that his operation only surveys contested “swing” districts, Cullerton claimed that the governor’s poll numbers are “underwater everywhere.” And while Rauner “picked up a few points” after the governor and the General Assembly agreed to a stopgap budget in June, Rauner’s “job performance is still way underwater.”

Cullerton did not share any specific numbers, but what he said matches with what I’ve been hearing from others, including a few Republicans.

And that may also be part of the reason why Rauner continues to tell reporters that he isn’t much involved in legislative campaigns, even though GOP sources say he is involved. Personally interviewing candidates to replace retired state Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) along with his former chief of staff as well as what appears to be his favorite adviser (John Tillman of the Illinois Policy Institute) was more than just a clue that his interest approaches granularity levels. Admitting to actually being heavily involved would result in news stories about how he’s strongly influencing specific local races, however.

The Republicans have been tying House Speaker Michael Madigan to Democrats in both chambers in their mail and in their TV ads, but the Senate President claimed “The Madigan stuff doesn’t rub off on Democratic candidates,” then backed up a bit to say he was only familiar with polling for Senators and Senate candidates. “It doesn’t work on the Senators,” he said.

But, what if he’s wrong? What if Rauner’s vast wealth and his field operation manage to break through the extreme white noise of a presidential election and the Republicans do actually pick off several Democratic seats?

Well, a million dollars spent on Chicago broadcast TV ads hasn’t managed to propel Rep. Michael McAuliffe (R-Chicago) over 50 percent, according to the Republicans’ own polling, and his margin has actually shrunk since July. President Obama won McAuliffe’s district in 2012 by eight points, 53-45, according to data compiled by pollster We Ask America. Structural presidential year turnout like that is very difficult to overcome, and that includes those Senate races.

Still, I’ve been asking Democratic operatives lately what is keeping them awake at night, and they’ve all had about the same basic answer.

Targeted legislative races can often be decided by just a handful of votes. Rep. Kate Cloonen (D-Kankakee) is the most extreme example of this, winning by an average of about 100 votes the last two cycles. Rep. Mike Smiddy (D-Hillsdale) won his 2014 race by 314 votes. Former Democratic Rep. Frank Mautino won his last race two years ago by 337 votes.

The biggest potential problem is the unpredictability of Donald Trump’s supporters. Some Dems believe his support is actually higher than the polls are currently showing.

And in any given district, 500 (or even fewer) Trump backers who rarely vote and therefore haven’t been personally contacted much, if at all, by either side could decide to head to the polls on election day and then continue supporting Republican candidates straight down the ticket and create some upsets.

Gov. Rauner’s unprecedented campaign spending and his emphasis on a ground game along with Trump’s huge popularity with white working class voters (who dominate all of the Democrats’ contested Downstate districts) are making this presidential cycle extremely unusual and, to an extent, unpredictable. So, no matter what Cullerton says, the Democrats are worried that they may actually lose some seats.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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