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Thursday, April 12, 2018 12:25 am

It’s not a winning message if you don’t use it

 J.B. Pritzker appears to have chosen a solid message for the fall campaign. The overall theme at the successful Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s press conference the day after he won the primary race was “Bruce Rauner is a failed governor.” The message is also the primary subject of his online advertising push against Rauner.

Not coincidentally, that’s pretty much the exact same message Rauner successfully used against former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn four years ago. “Pat Quinn failed.” Period. End of story. Whatever the question was, the answer was: “Pat Quinn failed.” When will you release your complete tax returns? “Pat Quinn failed.” What about the questions about your company’s business practices? “Pat Quinn failed.” What color is the sky? “Pat Quinn failed.”

Rauner avoided answering an awful lot of questions with that response back in the day. When he’s properly managed, the man knows how to stay on message, and it worked phenomenally well in 2014.

Gov. Rauner’s message since he’s taken office has been a variation of blaming House Speaker Michael Madigan. No budget? “Madigan.” State fairgrounds deteriorating? “Madigan.” Sky isn’t blue today? “Madigan.”

And because he’s stayed so perfectly on message, Rauner has completely framed the current political debate. What did Pritzker’s top two Democratic primary opponents use against the frontrunner the most? “Madigan.” What question does Pritzker get whenever a reporter interviews him? “Madigan?” Pritzker has to change the subject. He has the answer, but he’s just not using it yet. He’s still allowing Rauner to control the campaign.

“Obviously you’re going to keep getting asked about this,” I said to Pritzker hours after his post-election press conference to denounce Rauner as a failure. “The governor says you’re Madigan’s hand-picked candidate. The governor says if you win, Madigan will run the state. And you have said you’re going to be independent. But how?”

“Bruce Rauner’s got nothing else to talk about,” Pritzker replied. “He has for the last three and a half years, he’s tried to trash Democrats by throwing the Speaker at them.” And then he said, “I’ve been an independent leader my whole life. I don’t think that any of that sticks to me.”

OK, stop right there. Nobody in Voter Land has any clue whatsoever about Pritzker’s life. They mainly know what they see on TV. And for the next several months, the TV ads they’ll see will be about how Pritzker is Madigan’s corrupt stooge.

The “right” answer is: “Bruce Rauner’s got nothing else to talk about because he’s a failed governor.” If you’re going to have a campaign theme, then for crying out loud use it so incessantly that we all get completely sick and tired of hearing it. Then – and only then – will you know it’s working.

Pritzker eventually did slip in the word “failed,” but only in relation to Rauner’s failure to win his primary by more than a tiny margin.

The big worry expressed by several Democratic insiders who otherwise support Pritzker is that the nominee may not be tough enough, mean enough and single-minded enough to really take it to Rauner, who we all know by now is willing to say and do whatever crazy thing it takes to win – up to and including calling Rep. Jeanne Ives, of all people, a Madigan pawn. Beating a guy like that requires strict message discipline, even in a “blue” state in a “blue” year. Blithely treading water through November risks a 2016-style ending.

So, I asked Pritzker about this. I’ve heard more than one Democrat, I told him, who wished he would show more meanness. Does he believe he has what it takes to really take it to Rauner?

“I absolutely have what it takes to beat Bruce Rauner,” Pritzker said. “He’s an utter and complete disaster as a governor. I’m gonna make that clear.”

Then make it as clear as that with every answer to every question, man.

Pritzker used to tell the story about when Rauner attacked him the first day he publicly expressed an interest in running for governor. “Well,” his wife said, according to Pritzker, “we’ll just have to crush him like the roach he is.” Pritzker admitted that he hadn’t used that story in a long time, but said he will be “equally explicit as we move forward to make sure people know what it is that we intend to do in the general election.”

That’s a lot of garbly words instead of just: “Rauner failed.” He’s got a winning message. He should use it.

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