Handicapping Rahm's Chances in the Chicago Mayoral Race

Rahm Emanuel has officially left the White House and entered the Chicago mayoral race, a move that was expected for nearly a month before it happened.

So what are his chances? What challenges will he face? The race will be a high-profile affair, and many factors will weigh both in his favor and against it.

According to Chicago political insiders, Emanuel will bring two distinct advantages with him: his fabled fundraising abilities and a perception that he's the frontrunner.

Emanuel is garnering more media attention than anyone else at this point, both on a national scale and in Chicago, and he's perceived by many to be the heaviest of heavyweights in a largely undefined field. Given that some of the strongest candidates have not officially announced they are running, Emanuel's official entry into the race could very well scare some of them off and narrow the field. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, for instance, could significantly impact the race by garnering a big chunk of the Hispanic vote, but will Emanuel's entry dissuade him from actually running? Attorney General Lisa Madigan would enter as a serious contender, but Rahm's presence makes her entry even less likely than it already was.

The primary will be held on February 22, with a run-off on April 5. It's uncertain how much this race will cost, but one longtime Chicago pol estimated that a winning candidate will need at least $4 or $5 million for the primary. As the race narrows to two, raising another requisite couple million for the general shouldn't be as hard. Emanuel stands the best chance of raising this money of anyone in the race.

As is true in many kinds of elections, the power brokers will want to pick a winner, and the frontrunner image will help Emanuel win support from key organizations and individuals.

Emanuel retains ties to Mayor Richard Daley, dating back to his work for Daley as a fundraiser in the late 1980s. Daley has said he will not endorse a successor, but if he privately offers support to a candidate, Emanuel does stand a chance of winning the nod. He's probably not Daley's favorite, however, at this point: a recent radio interview, in which Daley lavishes praise on community colleges chief Gery Chico, gives some indication of that.

He's also kept in touch with the Daley fundraising network he tapped as Daley's finance man in those days, adding a built-in donor network to his indisputable fundraising skill.

But this will be a tough contest. Thanks to the Daley dynasty, there hasn't been a competitive mayoral race in Chicago for some time (Richard M. Daley has served since 1989), and much has changed since Richard J. Daley, the mayor's father, was in charge. In a sense, every candidate is wading into uncharted waters.

It will not be easy, and Emanuel will face many challenges.

Despite the impression in the national media that Emanuel is the top candidate in this race, he may not actually be. His most serious competition will come from Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, according to a consensus of several Chicago political insiders I talked to, one of whom said definitively that Dart has an edge over Emanuel out of the gate. Currently, Dart figures to enjoy backing from key groups and individual political figures across the city, including segments of Mayor Daley's network.

Beyond the competition from Dart, a few other factors will weigh against Rahm in this race:

  • A crowded field. There are more than 30 potential candidates in this race, ally vying for the same prize, complicating any run at key blocs of support. A handful of contenders have the chance to play significant roles in the contest.
  • Racial politics. "This is an election that's obviously ripe for candidates from at least the two major minorities, the African American and Hispanic communities, and that's going to be an issue," said Prof. Alan Gitelson of Loyola University in Chicago. If Chicago's growing Hispanic community unites around a candidate (for instance Rep. Luis Gutierrez or City Clerk Miguel Del Valle), that could pose a challenge. Mitigating this factor: Mayor Daley succeeded in reaching out to African American and Hispanic communities during his tenure, so it's not as if minority communities will vote in discrete blocs, against a candidate favored by the Irish, Daley-machine political figures in the city.
  • He's an outsider. Not really, but an outsider perception could weigh against Emanuel in this race. Not only is he a national political figure who has served in Washington, D.C. for years, most recently in the White House, but he spent his time in Congress representing Evanston, comes from the upper-middle-class/wealthy suburbs on Chicago's North Side. You have to take the purple line to get there. It won't help Emanuel win votes from other areas in the city.
  • Progressives will campaign against him. Liberals based in Washington, D.C. relish their bitter distaste for Rahm, and he can expect to see some opposition from national groups, basically out of spite. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has already sent e-mails to its members opposing Rahm's mayoral bid, and PCCC leader Adam Green indicated that the group will seek to rally it's 20,000+ supporters in Illinois against Rahm. Progressives have been vague about whether they're actually willing to spend money to oppose him in his hometown. Some progressives in Chicago aren't too fond of him, either, and there's an "anybody but Rahm" sense among them, according to one Chicago strategist. The city's main progressive political institution, the Independent Voters of Illinois Independent Precinct Organization, may mobilize against him, and there are a few thousand Democracy for America members in the city who will likely oppose him as well. The question is whether they will pick a single candidate to support.
  • He needs foot soldiers. Rahm doesn't enter this race with as solid a volunteer base as some of the candidates who have been living in Chicago and working, for months, to build support for their mayoral campaigns. This may not actually be a problem for Rahm, however. How will he get the foot soldiers he needs to turn out votes on election day? "He'll probably buy them," one observer remarked.
  • Signatures. Rahm will need to accrue 12,500 valid signatures by November 22. Since many signatures will undoubtedly be ruled invalid, he'll need between 25,000 and 30,000 signatures total. It doesn't seem like this would be a problem for Emanuel in particular, but insiders I talked to acknowledged that signatures will be a challenge for every candidate. It also means Emanuel will need to activate a volunteer network quickly to get them all collected in the next month. Other candidates have been collecting signatures for some time; Emanuel hasn't.
Other factors weighing on this race: it's not going to be as machine-heavy as outside observers may expect. Several convictions for political favoritism have Chicago's political class skittish about the prospect of exchanging favors for campaign work. The Shakman Decree, a 1983 ruling that made it illegal to hand out city jobs based on political work, has changed things, and it is illegal for city employees to do political work on city time.

"People assume that every phone that they pick up in City Hall has a wiretap on it," one political strategist told me. "I assume if I call anybody in City Hall that somebody else is listening."

All this has served to weaken the machine dynamics of Chicago politics, take favoritism and the role of city employees out of the equation, and, probably, to lessen the value of any private support Mayor Daley and his inner circle may bestow.

The factors at play in Chicago's mayoral race are many, and Rahm Emanuel appears to have as good a shot as anyone at winning it, particularly given the millions of dollars he will bring with him into the race.

But it will be a tough contest, to be sure. Being mayor of Chicago is, just as former Gov. Rod Blagojevich said of being a U.S. senator from the Land of Lincoln, a "valuable thing."

And Rahm will have to employ his considerable talents to get it.