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Illinois GOP struggles for unity after primary

Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 8:47 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, March 20, 2014 1:40 p.m. CDT

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CHICAGO – Two leading candidates did not attend an Illinois Republican show of unity Wednesday as the party tried to close ranks for the general election in November after a bruising primary campaign.

In a sign of challenges ahead, Kirk Dillard, the runner-up to businessman Bruce Rauner in the governor's primary, and Jim Oberweis, the party's nominee for U.S. Senate, skipped the "March to Victory" luncheon event at Chicago's Union League Club.

Rauner, a Winnetka venture capitalist and first-time office seeker, stressed Wednesday that the party should focus on what unites it, not divides it, pitching a message of restoring economic prosperity to the state. Illinois has high debt and unemployment, and pensions for state workers are woefully underfunded.

"We're going to win this (governor's) race because we're working for everybody," Rauner said. "All families are suffering." Rauner faces Gov. Pat Quinn in November, who cruised to victory in the Democratic primary.

But Republican state Sen. Dillard, who finished a better-than-expected two percentage points behind Rauner in Tuesday's primary, was nowhere to be seen. A campaign aide said he had travelled to Springfield to attend hearings on the state budget.

Oberweis, a state Senator who won the U.S. senate nomination over fellow businessman Doug Truax, also returned to Springfield to take part in the session.

"Jim wanted to be at the luncheon," campaign spokesman Tom Mannix said. "There was no way for him to attend given the timing of the legislative session."

Tensions between Rauner and Dillard ran particularly high during the primary. Of the four-man field, Dillard hit Rauner hardest, criticizing his business dealings and political connections. Dillard was supported by a number of unions who attacked Rauner with television ads, and said a number of traditionally Democratic union members would cross over to support him. In turn, Rauner in one debate asked Dillard why he wasn't running in the Democratic primary given his union support.

Though the two candidates spoke by phone Tuesday evening after results were posted, Dillard has been non-committal about working to elect Rauner.

"We'll talk," Dillard said to reporters Tuesday evening, following his concession speech. "Bruce and I will talk."

The clash was the latest in a series for the beleaguered party, which like the GOP nationwide has seen battles among its tea party libertarians, social conservatives, and moderates. Last year, a former chairman of the party resigned after making statements supporting gay marriage.

It behooves the party to bridge those gaps, Chair Jack Dorgan told the group Wednesday. Rauner, who supports abortion rights, has avoided social issues and focused on an economic message. Democrats hold nearly all state offices in Illinois and a Republican will need to woo independent voters in suburban Chicago to win.

"Rauner being pro-choice has the potential to appeal to large groups of moderates in the suburbs," U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a social moderate from Highland Park who won President Barack Obama's former Senate seat in 2010

The GOP event was on the same day as an Illinois Democratic Party unity breakfast, where top party officials, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin portrayed Republicans as wealthy and out of touch.

"A billionaire calling for a cut in the minimum wage?" Quinn asked at the Billy Goat Tavern event. "That's class warfare and we're not going to let him get away with it."

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