Rauner, Madigan dig in after primary skirmishes

Rauner%2C+Madigan+dig+in+after+primary+skirmishes

By Monique Garcia and Kim Geiger and Celeste Bott, Chicago Tribune

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner suffered some high-profile election defeats, but his allies on Wednesday pointed to a number of smaller victories as proof he can flex his political muscle — a signal that little is likely to change in his battle with Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan for control of state government.

With both sides claiming wins in Tuesday’s primary, there’s not much incentive for Rauner to back off his pro-business, union-weakening agenda, or for Democrats aligned with labor to drop their fierce opposition to it. And so there remains no resolution in sight to the record-breaking budget stalemate that’s cut services for the poor, led to mass layoffs at public universities and sent the state’s debt soaring.

Madigan suggested the gridlock is due to the governor’s focus on “attacking middle-class families,” while a Rauner spokesman replied with the suggestion that the speaker return to Springfield and pass “structural reforms that grow our economy.”

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Meanwhile, the political games continued at the Capitol, with Senate Democrats on Wednesday giving initial approval to legislation that would free up nearly $4 billion for everything from higher education to rape crisis centers. Rauner has threatened to veto the measure, saying there’s no money to pay for it, an argument his budget office repeated in a memo to lawmakers.

Rauner suffered two big losses Tuesday. One was a Democratic House primary in the city where Rauner allies spent millions in an unsuccessful attempt to protect Rep. Ken Dunkin, who repeatedly broke with his party in favor of the Republican governor. Democrats fielded challenger Juliana Stratton, a former aide to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who not only received the backing of unions but a rare endorsement in a state legislative contest by a sitting president, Barack Obama.

The second Rauner rebuff came in a Downstate Senate Republican primary, as Sen. Sam McCann, of Plainview, held off the challenger the governor supported. McCann had voted in favor of a union-backed bill to limit the governor’s options in contract talks.

The expensive, bitter contests are viewed as previews of the fall, when Democrat-versus-Republican House and Senate races will feature the vast political organizations of Madigan and labor against Rauner’s network of wealthy supporters.

Madigan contended that Tuesday’s results are proof that Rauner’s agenda is unpopular with voters.

“Yesterday, voters in the Democratic primary election made it very clear they want representatives in the state Capitol who will stand up for middle-class families, children and the elderly, not turn their backs on them,” Madigan said in a statement Wednesday. “Also, a message was sent that spending more money does not translate into electoral success.”

For his part, Rauner’s allies noted a handful of lower-profile Republican primary races in which candidates backed by Rauner won, including a contest in central Illinois in which Rauner was at odds with former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar.

That contest featured former Rep. Brad Halbrook, who won the nomination with major financial help from Rauner, including more than $50,000 from Rauner’s campaign fund as well as personal donations from the governor and wife Diana Rauner, who each contributed $5,400. Edgar had helped with ads in favor of former teacher Jim Acklin, who also had support from the Illinois Education Association and other labor groups.

“There were many races last night where special interests backed by Speaker Madigan failed to defeat Republican incumbents and candidates who support Gov. Rauner’s call for structural reforms,” Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said in a statement. “Even in a Democratic primary, the speaker needed to call in the President of the United States to defeat one legislator who dared to show a hint of independent thinking.”

Trover said the “primary elections are over,” and, in a statement emailed to reporters, called on Madigan to put aside “partisan press releases” to strike a budget deal. But the governor’s office stood by Rauner’s yearlong insistence that Madigan enact the governor’s legislative agenda to bring about a larger budget deal, which the speaker again rejected.

“The gridlock that we are experiencing stems not from a difference in political parties, but from the governor’s insistence that we focus on his agenda attacking middle-class families, rather than making the budget deficit his priority,” Madigan said.

A key player in Rauner’s primary strategy was Liberty Principles PAC, a group headed by Dan Proft, a conservative radio talk show host and unsuccessful 2010 candidate for governor that is funded by Rauner and conservative mega-donor Richard Uihlein.

Of the more than $5 million raised by the group since the end of September, $2.5 million came from Uihlein and more than $2.4 million from Rauner’s political action committee, Turnaround Illinois.

Proft’s group spent just shy of $5 million in the weeks leading up to the primary, almost all of it toward helping Republican candidates aligned with Rauner’s agenda, many of whom faced opponents who were backed by the Illinois Education Association or other labor groups.

Liberty Principles was the key source of money behind Illinois state trooper Bryce Benton’s unsuccessful challenge to McCann. McCann, whose district stretches from Springfield west to the Mississippi River, represents more state workers than any other lawmaker. He angered Rauner by siding with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in a vote that would have allowed the union to go around Rauner in negotiations on a new contract for state workers.

Liberty Principles poured more than $3 million into the district, including a TV ad buy for nearly $523,000 that came one day after Rauner’s Turnaround Illinois PAC transferred the same amount to Liberty Principles. McCann, for his part, benefited from about $600,000 in donations from labor unions.

Despite Rauner’s loss in that race, the governor and his allies are unlikely to stop relying on their personal wealth as they seek to diminish Madigan’s Democratic majority.

“He’s not going to learn his lesson the way the speaker has phrased it, because money is important,” said Kent Redfield, a campaign finance expert and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“(Rauner) frames his politics from his own experiences. He doesn’t have the political experiences to know how important some of these other factors are. You can still win elections the way elections are won last night, making it about the candidates, the issues, the ground game and getting people to the polls. Money is necessary but alone not sufficient, especially if you don’t have a quality candidate.”

Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said the real takeaway from the results should be that Rauner is able to protect Republicans who have his back.

“To me, the most important thing is every Republican that he said he was going to help and protect, won,” Murphy said. “So if you are a Republican sitting there wondering if the governor can successfully have your back, so far his record on that is perfect.”

But Rep. Lou Lang, a top Madigan deputy, warned Republicans against reading too much into the results, noting that all Democratic House incumbents won their races except Dunkin. Lang, of Skokie, said the results show which party the public is siding with amid the budget gridlock.

“If the GOP members of the House think this was an election that points to a victory for them, I would say they are delusional,” Lang said.

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