Republican Bruce Rauner and Democrat Tom Wolf stand out among this year's gubernatorial winners as the pair who claimed their party's ultimate prize—defeating unpopular incumbents. But for these incoming governors, the rewards of governing appear pretty punishing.
That's because, come January, both Rauner and Wolf will face legislatures dominated by the opposite party and encounter grave budget problems that threaten to unceremoniously cast their campaign promises aside as lesser priorities.
When Rauner assumes office in Illinois, he will confront an estimated loss of $4 billion in annual revenue caused by the expiration of an income-tax increase passed by outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn. And Rauner's only path to a fix lies through brokering a deal with Democrats in the state Legislature. Despite a national GOP wave, Illinois Republicans failed to pick up the one legislative seat necessary to break the Democrats' veto-proof supermajority in the state House.
In Pennsylvania, Gov.-elect Wolf faces a similar challenge. The coming legislative session will kick off with a protracted debate over a projected budget shortfall for fiscal 2015-16 nearing $2 billion. Wolf will be negotiating fixes with Republicans who recently expanded their majorities in both legislative chambers.
Despite their partisan differences, the two men actually share similar personal profiles. Both are wealthy businessmen who ranked among the biggest self-funders of the 2014 cycle. Rauner, a former private-equity investor, spent at least $26 million of his personal fortune to defeat Quinn. Wolf, the owner of his family cabinet company, shelled out $10 million to win his Democratic primary.
What could separate them is their fate at the hands of legislatures capable of sidelining their agendas from day one.
Rauner may have exacerbated his problem by campaigning against Democrats in Springfield, including Mike Madigan, the House speaker, and John Cullerton, the Senate majority leader, almost as much as he campaigned against Quinn.
In one Rauner campaign ad, a narrator says, "Cullerton. Madigan. Blagojevich. Quinn. Together they've been in Springfield over 100 years. They've taken millions from taxpayers for themselves, and what have they given us? Record job losses. Painful tax increases. Billions in debt and the worst pension crisis in America. Corruption. Patronage. Cronyism. Investigations. Prison."
Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president at Kantar Media, which tracks political advertising, said it's not unusual to see state lawmakers get attacked by gubernatorial candidates. "That said, the degree to which Rauner tried hanging these other pols around Quinn's neck was unusually extensive," Wilner said.
Despite the buzz that a Rauner-Madigan relationship will spark fireworks, however, Charlie Wheeler, a former 24-year reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, thinks the odds of a productive relationship between the two is relatively good. Wheeler notes that Madigan has been paired with Republican governors for two-thirds of the time he's been in power, beginning when he first assumed the speakership more than three decades ago.
In an address at Elmhurst College in 2012, Madigan spoke far more highly of his relationships with former GOP Govs. Jim Thompson and George Ryan than he did of the state's two most recent Democratic governors, Rod Blagojevich and Quinn.
Madigan didn't seem to care much for former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar, who led the state throughout much of the 1990s. In a speech at Eastern Illinois University earlier this month, Edgar quipped: "[By] the end of my fourth year, I had quadruple-bypass surgery. At least one of those bypasses was dedicated to Mike Madigan." Edgar also claimed that Madigan didn't speak to him for a month after he first took office.
By comparison, Rauner is off to an encouraging start. He sat down for a meeting with Madigan and Cullerton soon after the election. Madigan and a Rauner spokesman described the session as "very productive" and "positive."
Wheeler thinks that Rauner's business experience, not his political background, could work to his advantage. "Rauner, as far as I can tell has no ideology at all other than making money," Wheeler said. "In that sense, he comes in as a kind of a blank slate. He doesn't have any committed program that he has to hew to."
Another thing that's certain to differentiate Rauner from Illinois's past governors is his vast personal wealth. He has estimated that his net worth is in the "hundreds of millions of dollars."
On top of Rauner's spending millions to get elected, Tom Bowen, a former political adviser to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, notes that once the legislative session gets underway, "[Rauner] can mount an aggressive issue-advocacy campaign if he needs to," to garner public support for his agenda.
Rauner is indeed expected to set up a state political action committee dedicated to protecting members, particularly Democrats, who side with him on tough votes, to counter the electoral cover typically offered by Madigan, whose acute political skills are widely known.
"There's a reason why this guy has gone through two tea-party cycles and expanded his majority," Bowen said.
In Pennsylvania, Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said the state's budget problems have created "a shared sense of crisis" among Democrats and Republicans that could offer Wolf the consensus needed to pass a severance tax on shale-gas drillers, one of his key campaign pledges. Pennsylvania is currently the only major natural-gas-producing state without such a tax. Although Wolf originally pitched the new revenue as a way to restore education funding, now it's more likely it would go toward filling the budget shortfall—that is, if Wolf can actually cajole Republicans in the Legislature to approve any new tax increases at all.
"He's not a rigid ideologue," Sheridan said. "I am confident he's going to be able to work with leaders of both parties."
But those GOP leaders just became more hostile to Wolf's plans. Republicans in the state Senate recently voted to replace Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi with a more conservative member, Jake Corman. There's also a new speaker in the state House, Mike Turzai, who has a reputation as a unyielding antitax conservative.
One anonymous Corman supporter told The Patriot News in Harrisburg that the reason for the Senate swap was simple: "We don't want a moderate majority leader who's going to allow Wolf to get things done that are contrary to the overwhelming majority of our caucus."
How Wolf navigates the next few months could determine the outcome of the next four years. The same was also true for Corbett. When Corbett first took office in 2011, he faced a budget deficit twice as large as Wolf faces now, and the budget Corbett passed in response included the education cuts that Wolf campaigned to restore. Many pointed to those cuts as the reason Corbett lost this November.
Whether by charm offensive or compromise, working with the opposition will be an absolute necessity for both new governors. Otherwise, as Bowen put it, "the path to irrelevancy will be short."