Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a moderate Republican who narrowly survived a bruising primary against a conservative challenger, is facing another nasty battle as he heads into November – this time, against a billionaire heir with close ties to disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Rauner, who ran four years ago as a private-sector problem solver challenging career politicians, for months has struggled to hold even GOP support in the blue state amid conservative backlash over a string of decisions in office.
But now, he’s tasked with unifying Illinois Republicans in order to fend off the challenge from Democrat J.B. Pritzker—an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune with an estimated $3.4 billion net worth and brother of Obama administration Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
To heal GOP division and point to a common enemy, Rauner joined House Republicans at an event in Marion, Ill., to sign “The People’s Pledge” backing term limits—largely aimed at unpopular state Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, who was speaker on and off since the 1980s.
“The people of Illinois are sick and tired of destructively high taxes and corruption,” Rauner said in a statement. “By signing ‘The People’s Pledge,’ candidates for the state House of Representatives are demonstrating their commitment to cleaning up state government through term limits and replacing Mike Madigan as speaker.”
Rauner’s first campaign stressed reform, similar to President Trump’s bid in 2016. But he’s mostly kept his distance from Trump until earlier this month in Rosemont, Ill., when Vice President Mike Pence stumped for the embattled Republican and Rauner said, “Mike Pence, along with President Trump, are doing it for every American, right now. We are transforming the American economy.”
The Pritzker campaign has sought to tie the governor to Trump.
“After forcing a 736-day budget crisis on Illinois, racking up billions of dollars in state debt, and waffling on everything from his support for a woman’s right to choose to whether he voted for Donald Trump, Illinoisans across the political spectrum are ready to see Bruce Rauner voted out in November,” Pritzker spokeswoman Galia Slayen told Fox News.
A Pritzker ad claims a Rauner company is profiting from the Trump administration separating illegal immigrant families—which an Associated Press fact check said was false. Rauner in turn is running ads about Blagojevich and Madigan and another alleging, based on reporting by the Chicago Sun-Times, that Pritzker removed toilets from one of his luxury homes to dodge property taxes.
Both Pritzker and Rauner, with a reported net worth of $500 million, are independently wealthy. Pritzker reportedly contributed $76 million of his own money to his campaign, and Rauner has contributed $50 million to his.
And both candidates come with baggage; Pritzker had close ties with Blagojevich and Madigan.
“It’s already one of the most expensive races in the country,” said Rod McCulloch, owner of the Victory Research polling firm. “It’s been a race to the bottom. Heaven forbid either run a positive ad.”
Blagojevich, the Democratic governor removed from office and sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for, among other crimes, trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat, has loomed large in the race.
The Democratic nominee and wife Mary Kay Pritzker reportedly contributed at least $140,000 to Blagojevich’s two campaigns for governor in 2002 and 2006. There has been no allegation that Pritzker did anything improper regarding his association with Blagojevich.
Rauner’s campaign ads have highlighted FBI recordings of a Nov. 14, 2008 chat between Blagojevich and Pritzker discussing who to name to the Senate shortly after Obama’s election to the presidency.
During the conversation, Pritker suggested naming Secretary of State Jesse White to the Senate because, “it covers you on the African-American thing.”
Blagojevich suggested then-Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Pritzker responded, “Oh God, please, … I mean it would be a nightmare. I hope you don’t do that.”
Later, Blagojevich joked about naming Obama’s former controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to the Senate seat.
“How funny would it be to send Rev. Wright there? I’d bet you he’d take it,” Blagojevich said in the FBI recording.
Pritzker responded, “Hilarious.”
Blagojevich said, “Would that be f---ing funny?”
“Hilarious. Oh my God,” Pritzker responded.
Blagojevich goes on to say, “Right there on the Senate floor. ‘It's not God Bless America. It's God d---- America.’”
Pritzker repeated, “God d--- America.”
Trump complicated the state GOP’s strategy when he said he was considering clemency for Blagojevich. Shortly afterward, the Illinois Republican congressional delegation wrote a letter to the president imploring him against clemency.
Conservative Republicans were enraged when Rauner signed a bill providing state Medicaid dollars for abortion, and made Illinois what critics of illegal immigration call a “sanctuary state.” The conservative National Review magazine ran a headline calling Rauner, “The Worst Republican Governor in America.”
Rauner defeated conservative state Rep. Jeanne Ives in a March Republican primary by a slim 52-48 margin -- close enough that in his victory speech, the governor said, “Those of you around the state of Illinois, who wanted to send me a message, let me be clear, I have heard you.”
Republican state Sen. Sam McCann is now running on the Conservative Party ticket, posing another problem.
Pritzker now holds a 15-point lead over Rauner in the Victory Research poll of 1,200 state voters released on July 3. However the Cook Political Report is calling the race a tossup, while Inside Elections ranks it as leaning Democrat.
Fox News’ Power Rankings rates the race as “lean Democrat.”
Neither candidate is particularly popular, according to a Capital Fax/We Ask America poll in June.
“Madigan has been a punching for a long time and right or wrong, Republicans have done a good job demonizing him,” McCulloch said. “In parts of downstate, Trump won by huge margins, so Pritzker might have to walk a fine line in tying Rauner to Trump.”