Rahm Emanuel won re-election to a second term Tuesday. But it did not come easily.
The former White House chief of staff was forced into Chicago’s first-ever runoff election for a municipal office against a challenger, Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, who did not have the money, name recognition, or famous friends that Emanuel had at his disposal.
Emanuel received nearly 56 percent of the vote Tuesday, Garcia just 44 percent. In February the mayor received nearly 46 percent of the vote against four challengers, including Garcia, who finished second.
Even though Emanuel spent $20 million on television commercials and direct mail pieces and flew in star power like his former boss, President Barack Obama, for endorsement boosts, he did not get 50 percent of the vote in February, which forced him to campaign six more weeks as a kinder, gentler version of himself. For a politician known for brash tactics and foul language, Emanuel struck a softer tone in his TV ads, admitting he was “living proof” of someone who can “rub people the wrong way.”
In the end, his humble approach proved successful, but the struggle of the last six weeks seemed to show that the so-called centrist wing of the Democratic Party is aware that their brand is starting to wear thin. Emanuel, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other A-listers in the party who have dominated the national political scene over the last two decades are now facing an energized bloc of progressives who complain the party has become too cozy with its Wall Street patrons, too eager to engage in overseas conflicts, and less committed to such as Democratic ideals like strong labor unions, well-funded public education, and alleviating poverty.
And populist voices such as Garcia, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have benefited from the anger that many rank-and-file Democrats are vocalizing against politicians they see as favoring the powerful. “There are subtle differences that many Democrats are beginning to see now,” said Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York City.
“A lot of people weren’t necessarily voting for Chuy but were voting against the big-D Democratic establishment. But that’s still a vote,” Greer said. “Democrats are actually feeling galvanized because they want to see someone who is really thinking about progressive ideas.”
Garcia, who was a Chicago alderman and Illinois state senator before taking over as Cook County commissioner, structured his campaign around the narrative that Emanuel was out of touch with the economically and ethnically diverse Chicago neighborhoods and was, instead, more invested in luxury downtown developments favored by patrons in the financial services and real estate sectors. In the final days before Tuesday’s election, Garcia pressed the mayor to release emails that the challenger said would reveal the relationship between Emanuel and Michael Sacks, the CEO of a Chicago hedge fund and a top mayoral adviser, who also happens to be his top campaign donor.
Emanuel’s representatives said they would eventually release the emails, but said the documents were too voluminous to process before the election. At which point, it is valid to ask, how many voters will still care?
That, perhaps, depends on whether Tuesday’s Chicago runoff was the end of a local debate or the latest battle in an ongoing fight for the soul of the Democratic Party?
With Clinton expected to announce her candidacy for the 2016 presidential nomination, many like the Democrats who voted for Garcia on Tuesday, are looking for a credible populist alternative. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, though technically an independent, has been a dependable critic of the corporatist wing of the Democratic Party, and has said he is considering a primary challenge to Clinton. And former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is also exploring a presidential run, has critiqued Clinton’s Wall Street ties. Though formidable politicians, neither is seen as having the star power (or the war chest) to hurt Clinton’s prospects.
The name that gets many national Democrats excited the way Chicago progressives felt about Garcia is Warren. To them, her populist message and demand that the big banks be held accountable for the 2008 financial crisis make her the perfect antidote for business-as-usual Democrats such as Clinton and Emanuel. Indeed, last year, political advocacy group MoveOn.org pledged at least $1 million to kick-start Warren’s campaign.
Even though Warren has said — time and again — that she will not run, her popularity is a consistent drag on Clinton’s reported momentum. While Clinton is leading in the polling over potential GOP opponents, her favorability ratings have now dipped below 50 percent, a first since 2008, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released last week. Among left-leaning independents, her approval ratings also slipped, from 84 percent last year to 65 percent today.
Though that decline — which comes at a time when Democrats in Congress are also struggling to rehabilitate their image after last November’s midterm defeats — is likely not solely rooted in affection for Warren, the questions raised by the senator and her supporters persist. And when combined with recent struggles by establishment Democrats, the numbers suggest party members are in the midst of rethinking the future and sorting out rival narratives, said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in presidential politics.
“There’s a growing sense among some Democrats that maybe it’s time that we move beyond the Clintons,” said Buchanan. “There is now an opportunity for someone to complete with Hillary and to press her about why she wants to run. Right now she hasn’t said anything. She’s just been anointed.”
But the flip side to every spirited debate about political ideology is the cold, hard issue of campaign money. Priorities USA Action, an independent expenditure PAC originally founded to help Obama’s 2012 re-election bid, has now pledged to raise more than $1 billion for the Clinton campaign. This is seen as a big, green warning shot to any potential Clinton rivals.
However, as the Chicago mayoral race suggested, while big money makes an impact, it does not guarantee an automatic coronation. After all, Emanuel outspent Garcia 8 to 1 before February’s first round of voting and still could not net 50 percent of the vote.
Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield who specializes in campaign spending, said that voters are increasingly looking for “something real,” making it more difficult to get a consensus candidate who can speak to everyone in their party.
“You still have to connect with voters in terms of energizing them to turn out,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much you spend if people have quit listening to you.”