Updated: September 6, 2013 6:11AM
State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) was apparently taken aback a few weeks ago when his standard public comments about not ruling out a race for governor were taken as a dramatic sign that he might run.
The reaction should’ve been predictable. The most recent Capitol Fax/We Ask America poll, taken in mid-July, had Gov. Pat Quinn getting just 38 percent of the March Democratic primary vote. That’s pretty awful for an incumbent. Bill Daley, who made his exploratory candidacy official last week, was at 33 percent.
That leaves a lot of wide open space for another candidate. There is a very definable path for Raoul to do well here. And while he might not win, he would likely set himself up for a future statewide race (possibly the 2016 U.S. Senate primary) if he runs a credible campaign. There really isn’t much of a downside for his candidacy, so let’s look at his path.
RACE: Blacks make up a huge segment of the Democratic primary vote, so Raoul, who is black, should do quite well as long as he’s seen as a credible candidate. Quinn is counting on winning the black vote to defeat Daley, much the same way Quinn defeated Dan Hynes in 2010.
Without that all-important constituency locked up, Quinn would be in big trouble. He’s not overwhelmingly popular with black voters. Just 47 percent back Quinn against Daley, according to the July poll, and Quinn’s job approval rating in a June poll among black Democrats was a mere 28 percent, while 40 percent disapproved.
GEOGRAPHY: Rumors abound that Quinn and Daley are looking at choosing minority running mates. Raoul, however, would be free to choose a white downstater or suburbanite, possibly giving him the only geographically “balanced” ticket on the Democratic side.
To say that Quinn is unpopular downstate would be the understatement of the year. And Daley isn’t trusted by downstaters. In the recent Democratic primary head-to-head poll I commissioned, “undecided” led among downstaters with 36 percent.
MONEY: Raoul raised about $400,000 in the second quarter for an aborted bid for attorney general. While his fundraising total trails the other two Democratic candidates, Raoul has far more money in the bank now than state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale), who is seen as a serious Republican gubernatorial contender.
Public employee unions are desperate to back a candidate in the primary election, but they don’t yet have anyone they can trust. Quinn and Daley want pension reforms that the unions oppose, so it’s possible they could wind up in Raoul’s corner, which means big bucks.
Also, if Raoul convinces black voters that he’s a credible candidate, then history shows he doesn’t need to raise as much money as his opponents. Barack Obama, who was vastly outspent in the 2004 U.S. Senate primary, is just one example of this.
INFRASTRUCTURE: A late start in any statewide race is not a good thing because Illinois is so large and diverse and complicated. You don’t just pop up and run for something without having some infrastructure in place. But Raoul started putting together a statewide race for attorney general, so the beginnings of an infrastructure are there.
He could also have the strong support of Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), who has all but privately declared war on Quinn since the governor’s veto of state legislative salaries. Cullerton’s formidable organization could help Raoul set up a statewide organization. Most of Cullerton’s members, who are Raoul’s fellow senators, could be expected to pitch in as well.
If the unions jump in on his side, that would also be a big infrastructure help for Raoul. Cook County black Democrats are some of the most well-organized and politically aware groups in the state, which could give Raoul a built-in infrastructure advantage.
THE DOWNSIDE: Raoul has never won a contested race, and experience at taking and throwing hard punches is crucial in a high-level contest such as governor. While known and respected by much of the media and the political establishment, Raoul likely has close to zero name recognition among the electorate.
If he runs and ends up helping Daley get the party’s nomination, he will likely upset several powerful black politicos. And because Raoul hasn’t been on the big radar screen, nobody knows what an opposition report might find.
He’ll need plenty of fire in his belly just to survive the day-to-day ordeal of a gubernatorial campaign, but it’s not there yet. If he finds that fire, I think Raoul might be able to pull this off.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.