When it comes to the increasingly bitter race for Illinois governor, consider these the demagogue days of summer.
Not content to wait for the traditional Labor Day start to all-out politicking, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Bruce Rauner are furiously torquing up campaign themes and attacks that often leave facts, logic and consistency in the dust.
Quinn's camp, seeking to play to voter concerns about growing income inequality, is portraying the multimillionaire Rauner as a business tycoon tax dodger who stashes part of his fortune in overseas investments. Rauner is using a blizzard of television ads to fashion himself as a champion of lower taxes at both the state and local levels while bashing Quinn as the polar opposite.
Both campaign messages, however, come punctuated with hyperbole and critical omissions.
Quinn questions his rival's patriotism for holding investments in the Cayman Islands but ignores the fact that public pension systems in Illinois and elsewhere invest heavily offshore to leverage tax breaks that several tax experts doubt would accrue to individual offshore investors like Rauner.
Rauner, meanwhile, slams Quinn for hiking taxes but glides past key parts of his own tax plans that would do the same.
Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, likens the timing of the back-and-forth this summer to a form of focus-group testing.
"They know that many people aren't watching what's going on. They're trying things out," Gaines said of the posturing and sniping from both campaigns. Quinn, he said, is running from behind in a year where there seems "a pretty good tail wind" for Republicans nationally while Rauner "can't be confident" as a Republican in a blue state.
"Given the state's horrendous fiscal system, in the end, these are not really fiscal issues," Gaines said. "They're trying to dress them up as fiscal issues. Rauner managing money in the Cayman Islands isn't going to determine the credit rating on Illinois bonds. These are odd issues framed up in a way to say 'My opponent is irresponsible' and then there is vague discussion on Illinois' real problems."
With almost three months left before Election Day, both campaigns so far have been largely journeys down the low road.
Rauner's campaign has taken to referring to the governor as "Quinnocchio" and dispatching aides dressed up as Pinocchio, disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and even chickens to mock Quinn outside his campaign stops.
Not to be outdone, Quinn plants his own chicken-suit-clad aides outside Rauner events. Campaign press staff routinely needle the Republican candidate as "Mitt Rauner" and "Billionaire Bruce," though Rauner insists that financial milestone does not apply to him.
Beyond that, the Quinn and Rauner campaigns each are taking advantage of technology that allows them to come up with Web videos on the cheap.
Rauner's team launched one modeled after a trailer to a fictional "Quinnocchio" Disneyesque movie that promotes the campaign's band of costumed crusaders making fun of Quinn. The video opens with the disclaimer: "The following preview has been approved for intelligent Illinois voters."
Quinn's camp put up a cartoon Web video depicting a monocle-and-top-hat-wearing stick figure clutching a bag labeled "$" and described by a narrator as someone in the financial markets. A thought bubble with the words "Cayman Islands" pops out of the stick figure's head as the picture morphs into a beach with a shovel and a hole into which the money bag disappears.
"They think about the Cayman Islands as a place to be able to hide their money," the narrator proclaims.
Such cornball theatrics are just table setters for an almost daily volley of charges and countercharges that frequently are exercises in rhetorical gymnastics.
Rauner's campaign centers on building a caricature of Quinn as a big spending, big taxing, reckless steward of state finances. "Bruce Rauner has a plan to grow jobs, not taxes, repeal the Quinn-Madigan tax increase, stop corporate welfare giveaways, freeze runaway property taxes and require voter approval to raise them," a current Rauner TV ad claims.
Such assertions may play well on the airwaves, but they belie policy prescriptions laid out in Rauner campaign materials that voters are less likely to see. For example, Rauner has said he wants to expand the state sales tax to include for the first time an array of services such as legal representation, storage and maintenance work. And Rauner indicated that his plans to cut the state income tax could first require the rate to be increased before later being lowered over a period of years.
As for that property tax freeze, Rauner has declined to reveal what it would encompass or how it would be put in place. The lack of specifics leaves open the possibility that he is not proposing anything much different than current Illinois law, which already requires referendums for most local governments if they seek to raise property taxes beyond the rate of inflation.
Quinn, whose political career has been shaped around populist causes, is reviving the formula to drive the issue of Rauner's personal investments in the Caymans through the equity firm the Republican long headed, GTCR.
"For those who want to stash their money, and that includes corporations, in overseas accounts, whether they're in the Cayman Islands or some other foreign country, these billionaires and these runaway corporations, they're not patriotic in my opinion," Quinn said last week. "They should invest in America and not try to get into tax avoidance plans that shift the burden of taxation onto ordinary people."
It is part of a broader strategy to plant the impression there might be something dodgy about GTCR under Rauner, in part because the candidate refuses to make public key details of his tax returns.
Late last week, Quinn's campaign went into full throttle after securities fraud charges were filed against executives of ConvergEx, a brokerage owned partly by GTCR. "This is not the first time one of Rauner's business associates has faced criminal charges," the Quinn campaign declared in a statement, suggesting a closeness not found in legal and financial documents tied to the case which make no mention of Rauner.
On Saturday, Quinn's campaign said Rauner had "parked millions of dollars in the Cayman Islands." But a Quinn spokeswoman later acknowledged the figure was made up, saying it was the campaign's "reasonable estimate" because Rauner has not released his full tax records.
Rauner — who has put nearly $9.6 million of his own money into his campaign so far — claimed in a fundraising email to supporters Sunday that he was being outflanked in the campaign fundraising arena.
"We're outnumbered," said Rauner, referring to Quinn's public employee union supporters only as "special interest allies" after earlier in the primary campaign labeling them "corrupt" and headed by "government union bosses."
"They have millions of dollars flooding in to stop us because they know we'll break the political machine," Rauner said in his plea for donations to a campaign that already has raised more than $32 million.
For his part, the governor has tried to have it both ways when it comes to the subject of Mitt Romney, the unsuccessful 2012 GOP presidential nominee. Quinn's camp is trying to convince voters that Rauner's personal wealth makes the Republican out of touch with average Illinoisans, not unlike Romney, who amassed great wealth as a money manager.
But Quinn also praises Romney when he wants to draw a contrast with Rauner. The governor often criticizes Rauner for refusing to release details of his income taxes, which would disclose the value of his Cayman investments as well as other lucrative tax breaks, while complimenting Romney for transparency.
"Now I'll give the credit to Mitt Romney two years ago when he was confronted with this question," Quinn said. "He was asked about his accounts in the Cayman Islands and he came forward with his tax returns and all of the schedules connected to those tax returns and showed the public, the American public, what the facts are."
Gaines, the political scientist, said the summertime ferocity from Quinn and Rauner is just a warmup.
"You can expect (the campaigns) to stay negative in attacks, though it's hard to get much more negative," Gaines said.