Illinois Statehouse news | Analysist

With only days left before primary, can challengers beat Rauner?

2014-03-10T00:00:00Z With only days left before primary, can challengers beat Rauner?Kurt Erickson Lee Springfield Bureau nwitimes.com
March 10, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Hours after a poll last week showed super-rich, Carhartt-wearing political newcomer Bruce Rauner with support from 40 percent of the respondents, the state's largest employee union announced it was getting behind one of his opponents, state Sen. Kirk Dillard.

It was a positive sign for Dillard, who has run the table on getting government unions in his corner as he tries to put a dent in Rauner's anti-union, Scott Walker/Mitch Daniels playbook.

But Dillard, the man best known for reminding voters that he once worked for Jim Edgar, remains mired in the teens in poll land, fighting among his current and former Senate brethren for some kind of toehold in what likely will be a muddy finale to the 2014 GOP primary race for governor.

After the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union leadership announced they were joining forces with Dillard, there were more than a few Statehouse denizens scratching their heads about whether it was a case of too little, too late.

No matter how Dillard tries to slice it, the Republican primary is not a two-person race.

State Sen. Bill Brady, of Bloomington, has been steady in two previous bids for governor, nailing down anywhere from 18 percent to 20 percent of the vote by virtue of his long-standing conservative credentials.

And, even with the fallout over a federal sexual harassment lawsuit damaging his bid for the top elected office in Illinois, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, of Chenoa, will still collect some percentage of the votes on March 18.

Walking into the Capitol Wednesday with a lawmaker-turned-lobbyist, we chatted about whether Dillard, with the help of the unions, could somehow turn the numbers around in his favor.

"That's a very big hill to climb in such a short amount of time," rhymed the former suburban Republican senator.

Later in the day I talked with a veteran member of the Senate — a Democrat — who cautioned that it was still too early to call the race. After all, he said, no one saw Brady — except perhaps Brady — emerging out of the cornstalks to win the 2010 GOP primary.

An air of inevitability, however, has permeated Springfield. Rauner has given himself $6 million to complement the millions he's collected from other uber-wealthy donors, allowing him to dominate the airwaves with sometimes hilariously negative ads that attempt to paint, for example, the conservative Brady as a tax-raising, Big Government insider.

Rauner also has assembled a team of advisers who have served him well. His handlers keep him away from the prying questions of the press corps. They tell him what to wear in hopes he'll appear as a regular guy who likes hunting and riding a Harley and just happens to have an income in 2012 that amounted to $145,205 per day.

For good measure, Rauner repeats a poll-tested list of catch-phrases that essentially boil down to this: Illinois sucks because of bad politicians, but, trust me, I'll make it better.

The question of whether voters will relate to Bruce Rauner or one of the other more familiar candidates is just one of the unknowns heading into the final days of the campaign season.

Can Brady somehow eclipse the percentage of the vote he has received in his two prior runs for governor? He bought some TV ad time last week, but it was tiny compared to what Rauner has done and what Dillard can now afford.

Will AFSCME and the teachers' unions backing Dillard be able to convince enough of their Democratic members to take Republican ballots in attempt to chip away at Rauner's lead in the polls?

And how does Rutherford's presence in the race affect the others? He initially said Rauner was behind the allegations that have imperiled his political future, but in a recent debate he backed off that assertion.

Hoping to appear as if he's got everything all sewn up, Rauner has already launched the next act of his political play by gamely looking past the primary toward Gov. Pat Quinn, targeting the Chicago Democrat's record as the state's chief executive for the past five years.

There's ample evidence that rich guys who try to buy elections in Illinois never win. We've listed their names before: Hull, Gidwitz, McKenna.

In nine days we'll see whether Rauner gets to add his name to the list.

The opinions are the writer's. Kurt Erickson is the Lee Enterprises Springfield bureau chief. He can be reached at kurt.erickson@lee.net or (217) 782-4043.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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