CHICAGO – The Republican primary battle for Illinois governor is coming to a close after an unusual campaign featuring unprecedented involvement by labor unions, allegations of sexual harassment and a millionaire who sunk more money into his campaign than any candidate seeking a gubernatorial nomination in state history.
Wealthy businessman Bruce Rauner says he wants to "shake up" Springfield and has called Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels his role models. To win the GOP nomination, Rauner must top three longtime lawmakers — state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard and Treasurer Dan Rutherford — who say they have the experience and expertise needed to run the state.
Party leaders consider the election critical to winning the governor's mansion for the first time in more than a decade and regaining some control in a state government dominated by Democrats. They see Gov. Pat Quinn —who faces an underfunded, little-known challenger for the Democratic nomination — as particularly vulnerable because of the state's deep financial troubles.
Rauner has been leading in the polls, with Dillard in second place but picking up support in recent weeks. Voters head to the polls Tuesday.
Rauner, a venture capitalist from Winnetka, jumped into his first bid for public office in a big way, launching his first television ads last fall — months earlier than is typical — and sustaining the multimillion-dollar campaign through to election day. Of the more than $14 million he raised, more than $6 million was his own money — a record for an Illinois primary and multiples more than his three opponents combined.
Rauner used the funds to blast Quinn's leadership, "career politicians" in Springfield and the "government union bosses" he says are responsible for many of Illinois' economic problems.
"We have entered an economic death spiral and we can't just nibble around the edges," Rauner said. "We need dramatic transformation."
The attacks on organized labor brought unions into the race at a level not seen before in an Illinois GOP primary. They spent millions on anti-Rauner television ads. Three major public-employee unions — the Illinois Education Association, Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 — also endorsed Dillard.
With the traditionally low turnout of a primary election, Dillard is hoping the race will turn in part on those union voters. He and at least one union have been urging Democrats to pull GOP ballots and vote for him.
The Hinsdale legislator also has stressed his background working as chief of staff to former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar — who also has endorsed him — and says he would bring geographic balance to a state government controlled by Chicago and Cook County.
"I am the winning template," he said.
Brady, who won the nomination in 2010 but lost to Quinn in the general election, says he is the only "reliable Republican" and truly vetted candidate in the race.
The Bloomington legislator says the name recognition and grassroots support he gained in 2010 give him a head start in another face-off with Quinn. As the candidate who has raised the least amount of money he's counting on what he called "the core Republican vote" to give him the nomination.
"We need a downstater who's a reliable Republican, who can win and be trusted in this race," Brady said.
Rutherford has promoted himself as the only candidate who has won statewide election. He's also noted his more than 20 years of private sector experience and that he has cut his office's budget each year he has been Illinois treasurer.
"I've not been a career legislator, I'm a citizen legislator and I'm proud of my record," Rutherford said.
But his campaign suffered when a former employee filed a federal lawsuit accusing Rutherford of sexual harassment and making him do campaign work on state time. Rutherford denied the allegations, which he said were politically motivated.
In a press conference he called to rebut the claims before the lawsuit was filed, Rutherford pledged to release results of an internal investigation he said would clear his name. After the lawsuit was filed, however, he said he would no longer do so at the advice of his attorney.
He has said the lawsuit has hurt his campaign, forcing him to spend time discussing it instead of talking about the serious issues facing the state.