SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Over the past four years, Gov. Bruce Rauner has made the road home. During the 736-day budget standoff, he crisscrossed the state to sell his pro-business reforms.
"I love being out with people," he said. "My two favorite places to go are schools to thank the teachers and celebrate with students and to learn about what they’re doing. And to small businesses like this one. This was started by some immigrants from Poland. They’ve built one of the great companies in the United States."
Often at his side on the trail is his wife Diana. His wife is a Yale, Stanford and University of Chicago graduate and an advocate for early childhood education. During the budget impasse, her nonprofit sued Rauner and others demanding payment.
"She’s my best friend. She’s my partner and she certainly helps out in the campaign," he said. "She’s a Democrat. I’m a Republican. But it’s surprising how much we do agree on."
Challenger J.B. Pritzker sums up Rauner’s years in office with one word, and with almost $200 million in campaign funds he’s pounding Rauner relentlessly.
"Four years of failure is enough," Pritzker's campaign commercial says.
"We’ve gotten a lot done. It gets covered up with all the false claims. Oh, we’ve failed this or that. Most governors in America would be pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished in my first term," Rauner said.
So what has he accomplished? Rauner points to historic education funding reform that he signed after vetoing; securing $500 million for University of Illinois System’s Discovery Partners Institute; and a council to reduce red tape and regulation.
But Rauner promised to transform state government with an ambitious 44-point agenda.
House Speaker Mike Madigan and the Democratic controlled legislature wanted no part of it.
"We’re not going to cooperate with the governor on his extreme non-budget agenda," Madigan said.
The best hope for Rauner’s structural reforms came in 2017 when a bipartisan group of senators compromised on a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts. But they did not pass the local property tax freeze and changes to workers compensation that Rauner wanted.
Illinois got a higher income tax. But Rauner was left empty handed.
When asked who's to blame for the grand bargain collapsing, Rauner said: "Well, so for example, we do have many of the reforms I was pushing. We got half a billion in pension reform and career spiking – that was a big part of what we were advocated."
He added that he only got "a portion of 9" points accomplished of his 44-point agenda.
The U.S. Supreme Court gave Rauner a big victory last summer when it struck down mandatory union fees for government workers.
"Individual workers who do not agree with the political agenda of the union to pay dues to the union was fundamentally wrong," he said.
Rauner is perhaps most proud that he’s taken the fight to Madigan.
"Madigan now is weaker than he’s ever been in his career, partly from the battling, and we’ve beat him on many things that he didn’t want to have to do," Rauner said.
Trailing big in the most recent polls, Rauner is courting conservatives who abandoned him in the primary. The GOP governor famously declared he had no social agenda and backed it up by signing expansion of taxpayer-funded abortion and transgender rights. But in the final moments of the campaign, Rauner has embraced the hard right.
Back in August, he said people who are in Chicago illegally are a contributor to the city’s violence problem. He aired an anti-Pritzker TV commercial invoking a same-sex marriage, and rode his Harley to a Trump rally downstate.
Despite being snubbed by Trump at his Illinois rally, the governor has changed his tune on the president he has long avoided.
"Well, I work with President Trump just like I worked with President Obama. It’s a core part of what I’m responsible for as governor to make sure that the interest of the people of Illinois are represented well at the White House and in Congress," Rauner said.
And so as he travels the state, Rauner is closing out the campaign not with his promises for a second term, but a warning about his opponent.
"Pritzker and Madigan are a disaster on taxes, disaster on corruption, disaster on job creation. That’s why we're gonna win," Rauner said. "Prtizker’s trying to buy the election with record funding. But the truth is getting out. Tax fraud. Mail fraud. Perjury. Buying office from Blagojevich, using the language of racists. Getting sued by his own staff. Hiding his money in the Bahamas so he doesn’t pay his taxes. The truth about his lack of integrity and character is coming out.The truth is good for us and bad for him and that’s why we’re gonna win."