The fact that Ron Gidwitz and Steve Rauschenberger have teamed up to run as a ticket may seem a bit odd at first. But it makes sense in more ways than one, and it's probably their best shot at winning next spring.
Rauschenberger, you already know, dropped out of the Republican gubernatorial race to run as Gidwitz's lieutenant governor candidate.
Despite spending millions of dollars on TV ads and direct mail (and making some wealthy out-of-state consultants even wealthier in the process), Gidwitz is polling no higher than 4 percent, and was at just 3.5 percent in a poll commission by the state Republican Party a little over a week ago. That last poll put him within the margin of error of zero, so, obviously, nothing has worked.
Steve Rauschenberger was endorsed by almost every newspaper in Illinois when he ran for the US Senate last year, but he couldn't raise any money and finished third. This year, Rauschenberger's money troubles have continued, but even before anyone had spent a dime his poll numbers were in the mid-single digits and then never budged - a pretty good indication that his previous statewide bid hadn't done him any good.
Despite his repeated claims to the contrary, Rauschenberger's campaign was running on fumes. He had laid off staff in the past few weeks and was not in a financial position to make the big run next spring. Gidwitz has money to burn, but nobody was paying any attention to him. Good sources say Gidwitz promised Rauschenberger he would spend $10-15 million on the primary campaign alone - although that's far higher than what Gidwitz had told some insiders a few days before.
Whatever Gidwitz spends, teaming up means Rauschenberger and his minions can afford to stay on the campaign trail. It will also provide an immediate lift to the Gidwitz campaign, which has been lift-free since Day One. The combo will give political reporters something to write about and at least allow them the illusion that the dynamics of the race have changed. Reporters would have thought it boring to cover a four-month crowning of Queen Judy Baar Topinka - her of the very wide lead and strong support by the establishment.
But has anything really changed? If you add the raw poll numbers together, Gidwitz and Rauschenberger are now just under 10 percent - two points behind Jim Oberweis and way behind Topinka, who's at 39 percent, according to the state GOP.
This combo is about more than raw numbers, however. Gidwitz and Rauschenberger have both fashioned themselves as reformers. Never mind that Rauschenberger is one of the fathers and staunchest supporters of the member initiatives (pork) program and Gidwitz is a country club Republican, former George Ryan supporter and owns some truly awful slum property in Joliet.
Both men have based their campaigns on a desire to tear down this state's long tradition of pay-to-play pinstripe patronage and replace it with a fresh, clean government worthy of its citizens.
That's the spark they hope to ignite. Yes, it's also about money, ego, low poll numbers and more than a little desperation. But what I gather they're trying to do here is form a thoughtful center-right alliance for change. Political reform, education reform, tax reform.
If they play it right, the synergy of their merger could amount to much more than the abysmal 10 percent they are combining for in the polls right now. Since they have nothing to lose (you can't go much lower than 3.5 percent) they can be as aggressive as they want. Topinka, on the other hand, is campaigning with her eyes on the general election, which forces her to remain cautious and in the middle.
Then again, synergistic mergers were all the rage in the 1990s business world and they didn't work out too well. Also, don't forget that the Republican establishment may be battered, but it's still fairly influential in primaries, and the establishment is mostly with Topinka. She's also still the only female against three men, two of whom are very conservative and fighting over the same base of hardcores. But the Republican poll showed 43 percent of voters are undecided - and that could turn out to be fertile ground for the Gidwitz-Rauschenberger team, if it beats expectations and somehow catches on.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.