Bruce Rauner rides wild wave to GOP primary victory; now the ride gets wilder

Matt DietrichReboot Illinois

Mar 18, 2014
Supporters of Bruce Rauner celebrate after Rauner is declared the Republican candidate for governor around 10 p.m. Tuesday, March 18.

Supporters of Bruce Rauner celebrate after Rauner is declared the Republican candidate for governor around 10 p.m. Tuesday, March 18.


A year ago – on March 5, 2013, to be precise – Bruce Rauner announced he was forming an exploratory committee to look at a possible run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2014.

In the first polling thereafter, Rauner – who until then was virtually unknown outside of Chicago’s high-powered business circles – barely made a blip:

This Battleground America poll from May 2013 showed Bruce Rauner barely registering with respondents.

This Battleground America poll from May 2013 showed Bruce Rauner barely registering with respondents.


What a difference a year, more than $7 million in TV ads and a lot of mileage on the campaign bus make. An ad blitz that began at Thanksgiving and continued through Tuesday earned Rauner astounding poll numbers – he had a 17-point lead on Kirk Dillard a week before the primary.

Note in the chart below, from a recent We Ask America poll, how Rauner ascended from last place at the far left to the top spot, with a pronounced upward boost in November, when he began advertising heavily. In another story from a strange and remarkable primary campaign, note Treasurer Dan Rutherford’s decline from frontrunner a year ago to last place – with a precipitous drop following his Jan. 31 press conference in which he alleged he was being blackmailed with harassment allegations from a soon-to-be-former employee.

We Ask America poll from   March 4, 2014, tracks the ascent of Bruce Rauner among likely voters.

We Ask America poll from March 4, 2014, tracks the ascent of Bruce Rauner among likely voters.


Tuesday’s victory for the venture capitalist proved that his poll numbers, while far from indicative of his 3 percentage point margin of victory Tuesday, were no fluke and the messages he hammered in his ads (literally, in the case of his “sledgehammer” ad) resonated with Republican voters.

In sum, those messages are:

  • “Union bosses” of public employee unions control much of state government and they maintain a grip on the Springfield establishment through campaign donations and endorsements
  • Springfield needs an outsider to break it of the bad habits that have become standard operating procedure
  • State government overall is bloated, inefficient and in need of a top-down audit by outside professionals
  • Career politicians beholden to special interests (especially to labor) have cut deals to further their careers that have left the state on the brink of collapse. Term limits must be implemented to get them out and prevent a repeat.
  • Illinois needs more charter schools and more choices for parents to break educational control from teachers unions:

Illinois never has seen a candidate like Rauner for governor before. His vast personal wealth means he will be able to match penny-for-penny whatever opposition his union opponents throw at him. Rod Blagojevich famously spent $26 million to defeat Judy Baar Topinka in 2006. Rauner made more than double that in 2012.

He’s already shown his willingness to put his own money into his campaign, but his outside fundraising was just as remarkable, raising a primary campaign fund of $14 million.

But even with Illinois suffering from chronically high unemployment, massive state debt and a financial prognosis of long-term pain, Rauner will not face an easy path to the Executive Mansion (where, he says, he will reside if he wins on Nov. 4).

Four years ago, the state’s financial condition was every bit as woeful as it is today and Gov. Pat Quinn trailed Republican challenger Bill Brady in the polls just days before Election Day. And even with the memory of Rod Blagojevich still fresh in the electorate’s mind, Quinn eked out a victory by less than 1 percent.

And even though Rauner has blanketed the airwaves with the message that Quinn is, in his words, “the worst governor in America,” Quinn might be considered a stronger candidate this time around.

His 2012 Medicaid reform cut $2.7 billion, throwing thousands of people off Medicaid in the process. He managed what many had long thought impossible when a major pension reform bill passed the General Assembly in December.

And he fired up his Democratic base in November when he signed the state’s same-sex marriage law, fulfilling a promise he had been making for months.

Quinn has continued to appeal to his base with a concerted push to raise the state’s minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $10, a proposal that has drawn heavy opposition from business groups.

During the summer, when former U.S. Commerce Secretary, White House chief of staff and JPMorgan Chase executive Bill Daley briefly challenged Quinn for the Democratic nomination, Quinn frequently derided “big shots” who – like Daley – had high-profile friends in high places. By contrast, Quinn portrays himself as a friend of the common folk.

Squaring off against Rauner, whose wealth and big-shotness are exponentially greater than Daley’s, you can expect Quinn to play up the big-shot-vs.-little-guy dynamic to the hilt.

Because Rauner has been so virulently critical of public employee unions throughout his campaign, you also can expect this election to play out as a measurement of public sentiment on that issue. But even the traditional union-Democrat alliance comes with a twist in Illinois in 2014.

No governor in recent history has drawn the ire of public employee unions as has Pat Quinn. First, Quinn canceled contractually guaranteed pay raises for AFSCME members because he said the state could not afford them. AFSCME took Quinn to court and won after a protracted legal battle.

Public employee unions showed up en mass at Governor’s Day at the 2012 Illinois State Fair to heckle Quinn, who didn’t hold a rally at the 2013 fair to avoid a repeat of that scene.

Quinn’s push for and signing of the pension reform bill in December was viewed by labor as the ultimate affront.

Unions tried to thwart Rauner winning the Republican nomination first by forming a Super PAC to air anti-Rauner TV ads. Dillard won the endorsements of the state’s largest public employee unions, with sizable donations to match. A week before the election, the union Super PAC abandoned the anti-Rauner ad campaign and gave Dillard’s campaign $400,000.

With Rauner now the candidate, the unions and Quinn will have to make amends to have a shot at competing with Rauner’s virtually limitless funds.

And here’s one final wild card to throw into the general election mix.

While courting voters in the Republican primary, which in the last three election cycles has been increasingly influenced by its most conservative members, Rauner carefully distanced himself from things he knew would not play well with the GOP’s most conservative wing. His close friendship with Rahm Emanuel, his having donated to Democratic political candidates and his pro-choice leaning all were liabilities in a Republican primary.

Now he can embrace them in an effort to win the Democratic crossover votes that no Republican gubernatorial candidate can win without. Had Bill Brady found 32,000 of those votes in 2010, Bruce Rauner would not be the household name in Illinois he is today.

Polls just days before the primary had Rauner ahead by nearly 20 points. His margin of victory was much smaller.

How do Bruce Rauner and Gov. Pat Quinn compare? Use our scorecard and find out for yourself.

Follow the governor’s race in cartoons in this gallery from Chicago Tribune cartoonist Scott Stantis.

NBC’s Chuck Todd looked at the Illinois governor’s race on his “Daily Rundown” Deep Dive Tuesday. See it here.

Want to support the effort for redistricting reform in Illinois? Sign this petition and we’ll forward it to the Yes for Independent Maps team.

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