Is Harley-ridin’ Gov. Bruce Rauner “smoke and lightnin’?”
Or smoke and mirrors?
Rauner rides his 2008 Ultra Classic Harley Davidson across the state in an online campaign video to announce his re-election bid.
Wearing a long-sleeved black hoodie, a leather vest full of badges, shades, biker boots and a helmet, the Republican governor kick starts his bid for a second term.
Rauner’s voice-over is the chief audio, but the “heavy metal thunder” of Steppenwolf’s biker anthem “Born to Be Wild” would seem equally appropriate.
The governor is not riding solo in using motorcycles to project an image in campaign ads.
And he joins a long list of Republican politicians who are Harley riders, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Is it a metaphor for rebelliousness or independence? A symbol of conservatism? There are various interpretations. And Rauner has always touted himself as a political outsider, a “rebel” of sorts.
But is he a real rider? Or a weekend wannabe?
“I know his bike. He’s a rider,” said Dan Harper, of A.B.A.T.E. Illinois, which stands for A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education. Harper, who has ridden with Rauner, said the governor also passes some biker muster because before he became governor he regularly went to Sturgis, South Dakota, for the famous annual biker rally.
“He was going there almost every year,” Harper said.
Harper, who serves as a legislative coordinator for the motorcycle education and advocacy group, said the governor most recently rode in the DuKane A.B.A.T.E. Toy and Food Run, hosted by the DuPage and Kane county chapters on Oct. 8.
“In my opinion, he’s a biker,” Harper said, adding it’s a great source of stress relief for a man with a lot on his shoulders.
The Ultra Classic is among Harley’s best-sellers and it’s used for normal daily riding, or longer trips, according to Larry Bozek of Chi-Town Harley Davidson. The video features a peek at Rauner’s mileage —30,000 — which Bozek called “pretty good.” Bozek said the average Ultra Classic rider puts about 5,000 to 6,000 miles on the bike a year.
“The guy’s got protection on, and he’s just enjoying his day riding,” Bozek said of the video.
Brian Gaines, political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, said there’s a strong association of independence when it comes to Harley Davidsons. He said the timing is perfect to “plant the association of an independent,” in light of the backlash over House Bill 40, the abortion bill the governor signed, angering his conservative base.
Bikes aside, Gaines called the video “rather well done” in terms of visual appeal and music. But Gaines said Rauner has his work cut out for him in trying to unify Republicans, and also finding a way to win over independents as he did in 2014.
“For now, while his general-election opponent is not determined, and his primary path isn’t yet blocked, tagging himself a ‘fighter’ and projecting an aura of loner who won’t back down is probably playing his weak hand not too badly,” Gaines said.
Others questioned the effectiveness of the video, since it’s only being featured online, for now.
“I don’t know how many people are going to see it,” said Collin Corbett, a Republican consultant. “It’s about two minutes. Most online ads are between 15 and 30 seconds. This has got to be an opening sell to what is a much, much larger strategy. Because this really can’t be it.”
Corbett said the motorcycle image is another continuation of the Rauner campaign portraying the multi-millionaire businessman as a “normal guy.”
“I’m sure this isn’t the last time we’re going to see him on a motorcycle, or we’ll see him in that famous Carhartt jacket. And you might see him out hunting a few more times than usual between now and March 20th,” Corbett said. “What we’re learning nowadays and some had to learn the hard way is that voters can see through fake and so, when it comes to something where you’re trying to show Rauner as somebody on a motorcycle, or somebody who hunts, then it’s got to be real because voters see through that.”
He called showing Rauner’s real habits a “tried and true” primary strategy.
At least one of Rauner’s Democratic scoffed at Rauner’s motorcycle message.
“Bruce Rauner’s motorcycle must have taken a wrong turn if took him three years to ‘choose’ to fight for this state,” J.B. Pritzker’s campaign manager Anne Caprara said in a statement. “It’s time for Rauner to go, and at least we know he already has his transportation.”