With primary over, Illinois GOP in strong position for governor race

By Bob Secter

CHICAGO — President Obama’s Illinois has been one of the most reliably blue on the political color scale, but Tuesday’s primary here positioned Republicans for a strong shot at retaking the governor’s mansion in a state mired in chronic fiscal disarray.

Venture capital tycoon Bruce Rauner, a politically influential player among this city’s corporate elite but a first-time candidate, narrowly captured the GOP nod for governor over three party veterans in a race fueled by the new nominee’s vast personal wealth and biting disdain for public employee unions.

“Let’s go get ‘em,” Rauner declared as he claimed an unexpectedly slim victory over state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who had courted union support and attacked Rauner for trying to demonize hardworking civil servants.

“This is about shaking up Springfield, shaking out the corruption by its roots,” Rauner said.

Rauner, 58, in November will face incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn, who has low voter approval ratings but catlike political survival skills that for decades have kept him in the public eye as a populist outsider in his own party.

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The general election battle, possibly the GOP’s best hope of picking up a governorship from Democrats, promises to be expensive and bruising. Special interests on the right and left are pouring in resources to help two shoot-from-the-hip rivals paint each other in broad, unflattering stereotypes. Think Inspector Clouseau versus Inspector Javert.

To Rauner, Quinn is “the worst governor in America” whose bumbling management of state finances has driven away business and jobs with a big tax increase. To Quinn, Rauner is an exemplar of the so-called 1%, a rich, out-of-touch executive who is forcing the working class to bear the brunt of economic troubles.

There is little doubt that Quinn, 65, is vulnerable.

Governors always love to brag about how their states lead the nation in this or that, but the list of Illinois chart-toppers these days has become a major Rauner talking point. Among the states, Illinois has by far the worst pension debt and the worst credit rating, a fiscal drag that Rauner likens to “a death spiral.”

Yet Quinn, who replaced the impeached and now imprisoned Rod R. Blagojevich as governor in 2009, narrowly won election in his own right the next year in a contest where Republicans highlighted many of the same complaints.

Rauner’s bet is that voter fatigue with Quinn, coupled with a relentless ad campaign financed from his deep pockets and those of well-heeled peers in the business world, will be a difference maker this time around.

Underlying Rauner’s campaign from the first has been a war on unions that represent government workers, which he contends are all-powerful in Springfield, the capital, and responsible for laws and policy decisions that hurt taxpayers.

Both candidates have obvious vulnerabilities. Quinn must answer for the state’s dire financial shape despite a major tax hike he signed into law in 2011. Rauner has been forced to defend his business record, including his role as a director of a document imaging firm caught in a major accounting scandal that sent three top executives to prison.