IL Gov. Rauner Barely Escapes Primary, Pivots To Tough General Election Campaign

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner attends a bill signing on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 at the Safer Foundation North Lawndale Adult Transition Center. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) barely hung on against an upstart conservative challenger in Tuesday’s primary, an ominous sign for the embattled governor as he turns to an uphill race for reelection.

Rauner edged out Illinois state Rep. Jeanne Ives (R) by just 52 percent to 48 percent with more than 90 percent of precincts counted in a race few thought would be competitive until its final days. The Associated Press has called the race.

Those results set off alarm bells in Illinois GOP circles, as Rauner already trails his Democratic challenger, billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker, by double digits in public polls. Pritzker easily won his own primary.

“Tomorrow’s a new day and a win is a win. But it’s obvious the governor has a little work to do to put his party back together — all while fighting J.B. Pritzker,” said former Rauner strategist Lance Trover. “He’s got a heavy lift ahead. He’s in a Democratic-leaning state with an anti-incumbent mood hitting the nation.”

To have any shot in the general election, Rauner, who didn’t seem to realize he was in a real primary fight until weeks ago, will somehow need to woo back the conservative voters who rejected him Tuesday after he signed legislation to expand abortion access and protect undocumented immigrants in the state.

But he also needs to dramatically improve his standing with moderates in Chicago’s suburbs, who fueled his narrow win four years ago. Doing both at once is easier said than done. Rauner recently vetoed a gun control bill in an effort to solidify his standing within the GOP, infuriating many suburban moderates. And his constant fiscal battles with statehouse Democrats seem to be wearing on many swing voters who gave him a chance to shake up the struggling state four years ago.

Rauner himself seemed to acknowledge the obstacles in a less-than-victorious victory speech, imploring conservatives to rally to his side.

“To those around the state of Illinois who wanted to send me a message, let me be clear,” Rauner said. “I have heard you. I have traveled the state and I have listened to you. While we disagree on some things, let’s commit to working together on what unites us — the reforms we need to save our state.”

Even Rauner’s biggest political asset from his last race may not be much help heading into the fall. The multi-millionaire spent about $65 million to win his last race in 2014, heavily outspending his opponents in the race, and has dropped tens of millions more already in this contest. But Pritzker’s cash dwarfs Rauner’s, and the billionaire Democrat, who already spent close to $70 million to win his primary, is almost certain to have the edge in campaign spending in what observers say will likely be the most expensive statewide race in U.S. history.

“I’m not going to let Donald Trump have an inch of Illinois. And I will take every inch of Illinois back from Bruce Rauner,” Pritzker declared in his victory speech, taking aim at two lawmakers who are unpopular in the state.

And Ives wasn’t conciliatory as she conceded, calling him “the worst Republican governor in America.”

It appears for now that Rauner is the most endangered governor running for reelection in the country.

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