An organization controlled by Gov. Bruce Rauner has spent $1 million on a new television ad promoting legislative term limits in a little over a week. And that's just for starters.
Turnaround Illinois, Inc. is one of those "dark money" nonprofit groups that doesn't have to disclose its donors. It has so far booked $1,015,084 in broadcast, satellite and cable TV ads. The group purchased $684,455 in broadcast TV ads scheduled to run from Aug. 5 through Aug. 14. The biggest chunk of the money, $344,850, was spent on very expensive Chicago broadcast TV spots. All the ad buys are expected to be renewed.
Rauner’s TV ad features several "real people" talking about the need for term limits. Rauner has also set up a website where folks can "sign" an electronic petition supporting the idea. One of the people appearing in the ad exhorts watchers to help them get "a million signatures."
Before the ads appeared, Rauner spent several days touring the state demanding that House and Senate Democrats come back after the election and pass a term limits constitutional amendment, which wouldn't be voted on by the public until 2018. Rauner himself appears at the end of the ad to say, "Let’s all sign the term limits petition. Go to FixIllinois.com."
Yes, the issue is pretty much solely political and more than a bit phony. Even if the Legislature passed a term limits proposal this November (and it won't), the limits wouldn't actually get in front of voters for two more years and then wouldn’t start limiting terms for another 10 years. By that time, House Speaker Madigan will be 86 years old, and he could still run for a state Senate seat. But, hey, the House Democrats are notorious for using federal issues like Medicare and Social Security in state legislative races, so, whatever. It is what it is.
Rauner's group also paid $130,820 for St. Louis broadcast television, even though most of those viewers live in Missouri. Illinois candidates often skip St. Louis broadcast entirely or wait until late in the game to air any ads because they aren’t very cost-efficient. You always know somebody has big bucks to throw around when they go up on St. Louis TV, and it's practically unheard of in early August.
The Rauner organization also plunked down $32K for broadcast ads in the Champaign-Springfield-Decatur market; $73K in the Quad Cities (where Democratic Rep. Mike Smiddy is attempting to hold onto his seat); $57K in the already crowded (with state legislative ads) Paducah, Kentucky market; $21K in Quincy and $25K in Peoria.
In addition, Rauner has dumped $207,000 on satellite TV ads through Aug. 25 and appears to have added to his initial $21,989 cable TV buy with $101,640 more through Aug. 14. The cable buy locations line up with suburban and Downstate Democratic legislative districts that Rauner's political organization has targeted.
So, what is going on here? First and foremost, Rauner needs to improve his own polling numbers, both for his 2018 re-election and, more immediately, so his involvement can be of some use to his Republican legislative candidates this fall.
A recent poll conducted for Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth's U.S. Senate campaign found that Rauner's job approval rating was just 37 percent, with a disapproval of 55 percent. "He's been sitting around there for all of 2016, so opinions are hardening," said a source familiar with the poll's findings.
Rauner’s people counter with their own poll numbers which they say have Rauner's approve/disapprove rating at 44-49.
Either way, Rauner has to start moving numbers his direction to have a positive impact on this year's election. The term limits issue polls off the charts in this state, so firmly attaching himself to the proposal in an unprecedented and sustained advertising buy will likely help. Seventh-eight percent supported the idea in a poll taken Feb. 15 to 20 by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
The information-gathering aspect of this term limits push also can't be ignored. Rauner has reportedly put his trusted lieutenant Chip Englander in charge of his data project. All his legislative races are gathering lots of data and it's being pooled in one spot. Building on Rauner's 2014 race, and adding this year's data (including from those who sign up online for the term limits pledge) the Illinois GOP could be "among the nation's elite in data" for 2018, predicted a Republican insider. "Maybe the top."
And regardless of which poll is accurate, he's gonna need every bit of help he can muster, both this year and during the next cycle.
• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.