Eye On Illinois: Small number of GOP voters to choose Pritzker’s challenger

I’m not a political strategist, but I do like to play one in newsprint.

I’m also not registered with any political party and don’t cast partisan primary ballots. But the dynamics of such races are fascinating, making speculating about talking points and outcomes an exercise in curiosity: Which messages resonate among certain voter pools? How many voters are actually persuadable? Does anything that happens in the primary matter aside from the winner?

Already four Republicans hope to unseat Gov. JB Pritzker in November, with rumors of a fifth entering the fray once billionaire Ken Griffin appoints a nominee. Recent history indicates the victor will emerge with a plurality.

In 2014, Bruce Rauner defeated three primary foes with 40.13% of the vote. In 2010, state Sen. Bill Brady won a seven-person race, getting 20.26%. Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka got 38.15% to beat four other challengers in 2006. Attorney General Jim Ryan got 44.68% in 2002, besting two opponents.

Of the five GOP primaries since 2002, turnout averaged 797,000 voters. The general election average for those same five cycles exceeded 3.78 million. Presuming a five-candidate primary, the winner needs only to capture about 20% of a pool of voters that itself constitutes about 21% of the population that might actually vote in November.

It would seem extremely important for the GOP hopefuls to focus the majority of the next 27 weeks on distinguishing their campaigns from their immediate opponents. Republicans planning to participate in a primary almost certainly won’t vote for Pritzker in November.

Yet there may be nothing more important to those primary voters than backing someone who will beat Pritzker, so differences on things like agriculture subsidies or the Department of Natural Resources budget could be secondary at best to the more pressing question: Who can peel off support for the incumbent?

All of which is to say it’s clear these four (or five!) candidates are running against each other, but what they’re really doing is practicing their general election messaging – even without knowing if any of that potential voter pool is paying attention.

Some of the strategies within that framework don’t always register. It’s become commonplace to rail against people like Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot or Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, and while there surely are lots of Democratic voters in those jurisdictions, such plays might overestimate the importance those figures hold statewide.

Democrats don’t universally love Lightfoot, Fox, Rahm Emanuel or even President Joe Biden based solely on party affiliation. Though Pritzker is unlikely to have a primary opponent, he doesn’t have unanimous approval among his own party – voters or lawmakers.

The governor’s mansion is within reach for Republicans, but the road to such success isn’t marked with clear directions.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.