Public-sector unions took a big hit in Illinois Tuesday evening as a gubernatorial candidate they have poured millions of dollars into defeating seized victory in the state’s Republican primary. And now, in one of the few governor’s races Republicans see as a pickup opportunity this year, private-equity millionaire Bruce Rauner is poised to give Illinois governor Pat Quinn a run for his money and has a real shot at becoming the state’s first Republican governor in over a decade.
Rauner set unions on edge during the primary campaign, criticizing their leaders and pledging to reform the state’s bankrupt pension system. “The government-union bosses are at the core of our spending problem in Illinois,” he said in a primary debate, arguing public unions create a “conflict of interest for the taxpayers” and have made a mess of the state fisc.
Rauner’s targets didn’t take it lying down: The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the Illinois Education Association, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the Democratic Governors Association spent north of $3 million attacking him and trying to divert votes to one of Rauner’s primary opponents, state senator Kirk Dillard.
That’s far more than Democrats spent — $1.2 million — trying to steer Republican votes to Todd Akin in the 2012 Senate primary in Missouri, where Akin was viewed as the weakest candidate to take on vulnerable Democrat Claire McCaskill.
In the Illinois race, Dillard not only received money and support from some Democrats, but he also earned the endorsement of one big union. “My advice is that, if you are a suburban or downstate Democrat or independent and you care about public education, you should vote in the Republican primary for Kirk Dillard,” Illinois Education Association president Cindy Klickna told union members. The union also sent pamphlets to its members urging them to support Dillard. Almost twice as many votes were cast in the Republican primary this year than the Democratic one — though Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn was essentially unopposed, the healthier GOP turnout suggests some union members may have crossed the aisle to cast votes. Rauner beat Dillard 40 percent to 37.
Rauner’s aggressive talk about the state’s “corrupt union bosses” occurs against the backdrop of Republican reforms that have rocked its neighboring states.
In Wisconsin, governor Scott Walker fought and won a major battle to curb the collective-bargaining rights of the state’s public-sector unions; in Michigan, governor Rick Snyder led the fight to pass a right-to-work law that protected workers from paying compulsory union dues; and in Ohio, governor John Kasich passed a broad law limiting collective-bargaining rights that was overturned in a referendum a year later.
Illinois unions are petrified that a Rauner victory could bring similar reforms to President Obama’s home state, where Democrats have maintained control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers for over a decade. “Illinois is the last holdout for labor power,” says a senior Rauner adviser. “It has the highest unemployment rate and the worst pension labor debt. Rauner is taking this fight on. None of the other Republicans are willing to do that because they fear the power of labor.”
John Tillman, the president of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute and a longtime Rauner friend, says that Rauner’s victory should send a message to Republicans in left-leaning states around the country. When a Republican “puts a flag in the ground” on labor issues, he says, voters in blue states can be persuaded. He says he considered Tuesday’s primary a “fight for the soul of the Republican party.” The question at issue, Tillman says, was whether the GOP would side with the taxpayers who fund the government or a “union-backed Republican” who could have “split the Republican party in half.”
Rauner, who made millions in private equity, has portrayed himself as a political outsider who can transcend the corruption that’s marked Illinois politics for decades and whose business acumen will come in handy in Springfield. In January, the state had the country’s third-highest unemployment rate — 8.7 percent — and its unfunded pension liability, which stands at $100 billion, is the largest in the nation
“We have to be bold, tough, and fundamentally change government,” one Rauner ad says. “Lobbyists run the government for special interests, and career politicians let it happen — powerful union bosses and trial lawyers on the Democratic party . . . and a large part of the Republican party too.”
On the stump, Rauner is straightforward, even cheeky. Given his success in private equity, he’s often been compared to his party’s 2012 presidential nominee, even getting tagged the “Mitt Romney of Illinois.”
“I am a very different person from Mitt Romney,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I drink beer. I smoke a cigar. I use a gun. I ride a Harley. My grandparents lived in a double-wide trailer. I’m a salesman. He’s an analyst.” He describes himself as a feisty guy and calls Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels his political mentors.
There are indications that Illinois voters are itching for a change. A Capitol Fax/We Ask America poll taken last month had Quinn trailing all of his potential GOP challengers. He was behind Rauner by eight points, 47 to 39 percent. A November survey from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found just 34 percent of Illinois voters approving of the job Quinn’s done, versus 34 percent disapproving.
“I really want to transform Illinois government because this state is failing the taxpayers and the children,” Rauner told the Chicago Tribune last month. In a typically impolitic riff, he continued: “It’s going to take steel backbone to get it done. Because I don’t care about a political career. I certainly don’t need a job. Getting reelected is not on my top-ten list. I’ll be willing to do things that politicians won’t do. Because I don’t care who I upset.”
His friend Tillman puts it this way. “Barack Obama said he wanted to transform the country. Bruce Rauner said he wants to transform Obama’s home state, and the unions know that that is the beginning of a rebirth of pro-growth, pro-free-enterprise policies, and a movement.”
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.