Wealthy first-time candidate Bruce Rauner scored a narrow win over state Sen. Kirk Dillard for the Republican governor nomination in Tuesday’s primary with Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn now on tap for the fall.
Rauner, a Winnetka venture capitalist, collected 41 percent to 36.5 percent for Dillard with 78 percent of the unofficial vote counted. State Sen. Bill Brady had 15 percent and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford had 7.5 percent.
“Let’s bring back Illinois,” Rauner told cheering supporters at a downtown hotel.
On the Democratic side, Quinn declared victory after scoring 72 percent with 78 percent of the preincincts counted. Challenger Tio Hardiman, the former leader of the anti-violence group CeaseFire had 28 percent. A vote for the low-profile Hardiman amounted to a protest vote amid concerns from some Democrats about Quinn’s leadership.
The primaries were notable for low turnout despite the high-stakes nature of the GOP contest for governor. Quinn was the only statewide Democratic candidate to have a challenge.
Even before the Republican race was decided, Quinn tried to jumpstart the general election. Believing Rauner to be his opponent, Quinn aired TV commercials during newscasts attacking the Republican over the issue of raising the minimum wage.
Quinn has backed raising the state’s $8.25-an-hour minimum wage to at least $10 an hour. The issue has been a troublesome one for Rauner, who initially advocated “moving back” the state’s minimum wage to the current federal rate of $7.25 an hour.
“When you see Billionaire Bruce Rauner on TV, ask yourself who is the real Bruce Rauner?” read the graphics in the ad. Rauner has said he is wealthy, but not a billionaire.
Still, the initial ad strategy acknowledged the prime Democratic strategy for keeping the Executive Mansion by using the minimum wage issue to amplify the Rauner’s wealth.
Dillard sought to take advantage of a multi-million dollar push by public employee unions who backed him late in the campaign. Dillard had voted against the new state law that scaled back cost-of-living increases and raised retirement ages for many public workers.
“Things are going well. We’re closing the right way, and all I wanted to do was for this to be an NBA basketball game and to be in it at the end,” Dillard said at his Downers Grove election night party as the race tightened.
In early returns, Dillard trailed Rauner in the senator’s home turf of DuPage County. Dillard counted on support from Downstate Republicans, primarily those who are union members employed by the state. Dillard led heavily in Sangamon County where the state capital and many state workers are located, though turnout there was still low.
Rauner has promoted a decidedly anti-government union theme alleging the state workforce has been featherbedded and overpaid. He’s also called for an end to tenure for public school teachers and making even stricter changes for public pensions beyond a new law Quinn signed late last year.
Dillard, a legislator since 1993, opted to make a second bid for the Republican governor nomination rather than seek re-election to his state Senate seat. A former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and legislative liaison to Edgar’s predecessor, Jim Thompson, Dillard was attempting to win a nomination that eluded him by 193 votes only four years ago.
Rutherford, the first-term state treasurer, was the first to offer what amounted to a concession speech. His candidacy buffeted by a federal lawsuit, Rutherford said looked forward to what he called “vindication” and said he was “not going away” from politics. Edmund Michalowski, a former treasurer employee, filed the suit last month alleging he had been sexually harassed and forced to do political work on state time.
“I’m going to be back,” Rutherford said at his Pontiac election night reception. He called the last six weeks of his campaign “horrible” for his family, staff and friends. Rutherford planned no further public remarks and closed his reception to the media.
Rauner held front runner status in previous polling, reflecting a strategy to use his significant financial advantage to blanket TV airwaves for months with commercials that defined the candidate an outsider and successful businessman unencumbered by the state’s traditional political rules.
At the same time, Rauner offered a largely disciplined message as he tossed out such red-meat terms as fighting “corruption” and “bribery” and a vow to combat “government union bosses,” though he offered few detailed specifics on how he actually would “shake up Springfield” where Democrats are expected to keep control of the legislature.
Regardless of the Republican winner, a matchup with Quinn is expected to be an expensive and particularly contentious contest. Quinn’s campaign style can be particularly biting. Rauner has shown no hesitation to go after the Democratic governor and Dillard is a veteran campaigner.
Rauner gave his campaign $6 million out of his own pocket — a record for self funding in an Illinois governor’s race. He raised another $8.75 million from well-heeled Republicans. The combination of Rauner’s own money and that from wealthy donors prevented his rivals from mounting a full-throated campaign.
Only a $4 million push by public-union backed political action committees largely against Rauner and another nearly $1 million in late union contributions to Dillard helped him narrow the gap.
Brady, the 2010 nominee who lost narrowly to Quinn, had planned on building and growing a base off his previous candidacy. But he, too, was hamstrung by an inability to raise money and his base — concentrated Downstate — never grew substantially from the 20 percent he got in the Republican primary four years ago.
In Brady’s home county of McLean, with almost all precincts reporting, the unofficial vote count showed him virtually tied with Dillard at 31 percent. That’s the one county Brady should have easily won. Rauner was less than 1,000 votes behind them.
Brady conceded defeat at an election party in his home city of Bloomington.
“This didn’t end up, in case you didn’t know, the way we hoped,” Brady said at his Bloomington election night event in conceding. “We’re not going to give up on what we believe in and we’re not going to give up on the people of Illinois, regardless of the outcome tonight.”
Tribune reporters Jeff Coen, David Heinzmann, John Chase, Bill Ruthhart and Annie Sweeney contributed.