In the span of one day, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s fortunes went from bad to worse. He was already widely considered to be the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the country. Then came Tuesday’s Illinois primary, where he spent $17 million in TV ads but barely squeaked out a victory against a nearly unknown state legislator.
With Democrats already uniting behind the free-spending billionaire who will lead their ticket in the fall, Illinois Republicans are wondering: After Tuesday’s weak showing, does Rauner even have a prayer of winning reelection in November?
The day after the primary, Jeanne Ives, the conservative state lawmaker Rauner defeated 51 percent to 49 percent, didn’t seem to think so.
She wasn’t showing any signs the two would put their differences behind them.
“I really don’t care to say anything to the governor, quite frankly,” Ives said in a conversation with conservative radio show host Dan Proft, a strategist in her campaign. “He’s unelectable in 2018. He has destroyed the Republican Party brand … He’s a lame duck governor at this point.”
Part of Rauner’s predicament is the solidly blue state he governs — his reelection was never going to be easy, especially in a state where polls show Donald Trump is deeply unpopular. But Rauner also opened up a deep divide within the Republican Party by signing bills that alienated conservatives — among them, measures supporting abortion rights, enacting immigration protections and making it possible for transgender individuals to change their sex on birth certificates.
Those fissures showed in the primary voting results, with Ives not only beating Rauner in many conservative strongholds in southern Illinois, but also in suburban and exurban areas the governor won easily in 2014, including DuPage, McHenry, Will and Kane counties.
Pat Brady, former Illinois GOP chairman who has long supported Rauner, said the governor knows the kind of party rebuilding that’s ahead of him.
“As he said last night, he acknowledged that ‘hey, I heard the message.’ It’s a close race. I think he got it. I don’t think he’s tried to be anything that he’s not,” said Brady. “In a close race like that, he’s got to take pause and figure it out.”
Rauner’s first order of business is stitching the broken party back together. But the day after the primary, Rauner and Ives were still squabbling over who should have called whom the night before. Ives remained peeved the governor took the stage to claim victory before the two had spoken.
“Why would she talk to him after the disrespect he showed last night announcing victory before all of the counties were in — without a call to the campaign, after he poured millions of dollars into an attack campaign that flat-out lied about her, and after he dispatched his slimy operatives to the media last night to disparage Ives, her campaign and all of her conservative supporters?” said Ives spokeswoman Kathleen Murphy, in an email. “She has no reason to believe or trust anything he says.”
Rauner spokesman Will Allison suggested it was the governor who was waiting for a call.
“She never called last night,” Allison said. “Our team has reached out to their team to set up a call.”
A fractured Republican Party is only part of Rauner’s predicament. He now faces billionaire J.B. Pritzker, who just spent $70 million in the Democratic primary without a second thought. It was a high-turnout but relatively low-conflict affair, with Pritzker showing strength up and down the state — he won 98 of 102 counties, a testament to his robust statewide campaign infrastructure.
On Wednesday Pritzker told POLITICO that both of his top opponents, state Sen. Daniel Biss and Chris Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy’s son, have already told him they’d back him in the general election.
“It’s clear that the Republican Party is completely divided and Democrats with a reasonably common message were able to bring out voters,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker held his first general election news conference Wednesday with banners that read “Rauner Failed” — and he had five people with him on stage to represent those who he said the governor had “failed” since taking office in 2015.
Former Rauner adviser and political strategist Lance Trover said the governor is certain to charge hard against the Democrat in short order. After all, Rauner had already spent millions of dollars in attack ads against Pritzker during the Democratic primary, bringing attention to Pritzker’s unflattering conversations with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich that were caught on FBI wiretap.
“The governor clearly has a lot of work to do but what he cannot do is focus on the past,” Trover said. “He’s going to have to look to what unites the party and for Bruce, that’ll be [Democratic Party Chairman and state House Speaker] Mike Madigan…you’ve already seen it today, Bruce’s message to voters will be: ‘I am the only thing standing between you and Mike Madigan.‘”
Yet even as Rauner looks to tie Pritzker to the state’s longtime Democratic party boss, Pritzker has his own bogeyman to exploit: Donald Trump. The president was defeated in Illinois in 2016 by nearly a million votes.
“I’m not going to let Donald Trump have an inch of Illinois. If Rauner is desperate he may engage with Donald Trump and invite him to help him,” Pritzker said. “He may need to bring his party together. But I think Bruce Rauner has already proven that he’s like Donald Trump.”
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