Until recently, the biggest question looming over Illinois politics has been whether Republican Bruce Rauner, the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the country, can win reelection next year.
Now the question is whether Rauner can make it through a Republican primary.
After the first-term governor signed a highly controversial bill last week expanding taxpayer-funded abortion in the state — becoming the first governor in decades to on his own authorize Medicaid payments for the procedure — Rauner’s political universe began collapsing on itself.
He found himself uninvited to GOP events, including a pro-life event that for weeks had boasted him as a headline guest. One-time GOP allies began searching for funding — and candidates — to challenge him. Chicago’s Cardinal Blasé Cupich declared that Rauner had betrayed him.
The Chicago Sun-Times summed up the reaction on the right with this screaming tabloid cover page: “Benedict Rauner.”
“There is no other Republican governor in the country — no one — who would support taxpayer funding of abortion,” said state Rep. Jeanne Ives, who says she “wouldn’t rule out” a run against Rauner herself. “He cannot win in a Republican election, he doesn’t stand for core Republican values.”
Ives said she and other Republicans remember in the 2014 primary that Rauner told them he was personally pro-life but had no social agenda, and instead would focus on economics. She later learned that Rauner had privately signed a statement that same year with an abortion rights advocacy group — which didn’t become public until this year — that he supported the public funding of abortion.
“It just feels he was the Manchurian candidate all along and we’re just now figuring it out,” Ives said.
Last week, mouths dropped when Chicago Cardinal Cupich told the Chicago Tribune that Rauner had gone back on his word to him personally that he would veto HB40, the controversial abortion bill.
“I felt like at this point, where he literally goes back on his commitment to the people of state of Illinois, the Legislature, even Cardinal Cupich — I mean, you lied to a priest,” state Rep. Peter Breen said in a recent radio interview. “Once he’s done that there’s no one left that thinks this guy is a credible governor or candidate to continue to be governor going forward.”
Breen happens to be the Republican floor leader in the Illinois House. The previous floor leader stepped down earlier this summer after butting heads with Rauner on an entirely different issue.
“I understand abortion is a very emotional issue with passionate opinions on both sides. I sincerely respect those who believe abortion is morally wrong. They are good people motivated by principle,” Rauner said in a statement last week explaining his position. “But, as I have always said, I believe a woman should have the right to make that choice herself and I do not believe that choice should be determined by income. I do not think it’s fair to deny poor women the choice that wealthy women have.”
Before Rauner’s latest move, it was almost a given that he wouldn’t face a formidable primary opponent. But now, the governor — a wealthy businessman who has already spent $70 million of his own fortune on the 2018 race — will have to dig even deeper just to win his party’s nomination again.
Rauner has made an enemy of Republican players who had long sided with him and given him a megaphone. Among them is Dan Proft — a conservative radio host whom Rauner had once entrusted with millions of dollars to run campaigns and start a group of “newspapers” in Illinois, which had plugged the governor’s agenda. Proft, who last week declared that Rauner “is done” in Illinois, is now turning his efforts against the governor in those publications, as well as through finding primary opponents to Rauner’s remaining allies, including GOP House Minority Leader Jim Durkin.
While the abortion issue has deeply rattled members of his party, conservatives say anger against Rauner has been brewing for months, if not longer, and his signature on the abortion bill was simply the tipping point.
State Rep. David McSweeney, a conservative Republican who has criticized Rauner over financial decisions for months, laid out what he described as five major “betrayals” by Rauner to his own party. They date back to 2014, McSweeney said, when Rauner promised a 3 percent income tax and now the state has a 4.95 percent personal income tax rate.
While Rauner vetoed the bill that later became law, he had supported a tax increase on a temporary basis. Rauner also angered conservatives by signing into law an immigration bill that limits federal authorities’ reach to undocumented individuals. McSweeney said the governor had promised to turnaround the state’s economic misfortunes and instead the state’s debt grew to $16 billion in unpaid bills — and signed a bill “bailing out” Chicago pensions.
“It’s a very disturbing pattern of lies by Bruce Rauner,” McSweeney said. “He has zero accomplishments. Now nobody trusts him. I think he would be better off if he runs as a Democrat.”
But supporters say Rauner may actually be better positioned now to at least remain competitive in a general election in a blue state where Hillary Clinton won by double digits last year. The Democratic gubernatorial primary is crowded but J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire, has consolidated support of major labor groups and party insiders. Pritzker has already demonstrated he can go toe to toe with Rauner financially and has spent some $14 million, advertising on TV and the radio for months.
Rauner’s decision to sign automatic voter registration, and a bill making it easier for transgender individuals to obtain changes to their birth certificates, will burnish his appeal to moderates in both parties, supporters say.
“There are a lot of people I believe who aren’t necessarily vocal right now that totally support what the governor has done. It’s a center to left-of-center state, and being pro-choice or being for health care for poor women is not necessarily a bad place to be as a Republican,” said Pat Brady, a former Illinois Republican Party chairman. “It doesn’t make sense to me that all Republicans are going to revolt against him because he doesn’t like HB40. I understand completely that people are upset over HB40 … What are they going to do? Support J.B. Pritzker? [Democratic House Speaker Mike] Madigan’s guy?”
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