In the GOP's baseball-card collection of Midwestern governorships, one "need it" tops the list: Illinois, where Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is wrapping up his first full term.
Some believe they've found their man in Bruce Rauner, a wealthy financier from the tony Chicago suburbs. Not exactly a heretical choice—except that this particular wealthy financier leans left on abortion, is publicly agnostic on gay marriage, has donated generously to Democrats such as Ed Rendell and Richard M. Daley, and is a close friend of Obama chief of staff-turned-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whom he helped sherpa through the investment-banking world in the late 1990s.
Movement conservatives have shown a marked reluctance to support rich guys with wishy-washy purity scorecards (see: Romney, Mitt), let alone those who are cozy with Democrats (see: Huntsman, Jon).
Yet Rauner has a shot at winning over tea partiers and establishment Republicans alike, as well as the Prairie State's Democrat-heavy general electorate.
Here's how he could thread the needle.
Rauner could start by reminding Republicans what happened last time, when they nominated a hard-line social conservative, state Sen. Bill Brady.
Quinn—the former lieutenant governor who has lived in a perpetual state of vulnerability since taking office in 2009, following Rod Blagojevich's indictment and impeachment on corruption charges—defeated Brady by fewer than 20,000 votes. Republicans saw the loss, to a weak incumbent in a wave year, as a major blown opportunity.
"There is acute regret over what happened four years ago," says one longtime Illinois Republican insider, "and I think that has suffused everyone's view of this race so far."
Quinn survived only to spend much of the ensuing three years in the political doghouse, derided by Republicans and Democrats alike. Chicago magazine tagged him the "Rodney Dangerfield of Illinois politics." And when President Obama's other former chief of staff, Bill Daley, ended his own gubernatorial bid in September, he told the Chicago Tribune, "There's no doubt in my mind that Pat Quinn will not be the next governor of Illinois." He went on to name Rauner the Republican most likely to prevail.
Some of Rauner's biggest assets are his assets: He's self-financing in a state where Republican dollars aren't always easy to harvest, and he has locked up the support of Illinois's biggest GOP donors. He shelled out $1.5 million on a pre-Christmas TV ad campaign while his three main primary opponents—Brady, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, and state Sen. Kirk Dillard—still lacked the cash to respond.
"There is no question Bruce is going to spend more money than maybe any nominee has earned in the state," Brady says. (Through his spokesman, Mike Schrimpf, Rauner declined to talk to National Journal.)
But in recent weeks, Rauner has asserted himself as more than just the moneyed default choice for the play-it-safe crowd, most specifically by taking on the public-sector unions.
When Quinn signed legislation in December to reduce the state's pension payouts by $160 billion over the next 30 years, Rauner decried the bill as a "Band-Aid." He has repeatedly blamed leaders at SEIU, AFSCME, and the Illinois teachers union for putting the state in a "long-term death spiral," as he put it in a 2012 Tribune op-ed. In the same piece, he criticized both Democrats and Republicans for allowing public-employee benefits to run amok.
"What is interesting about him is, you could make the case he is a fairly establishment guy in many regards," says former Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, who was a member of the congressional Tea Party Caucus. "But he has made a case that he is an outsider angry with both parties. And that resonates with a lot of tea-party people."
According to recent reports, the specter of Rauner's nomination has labor thinking about wading into the Republican primary race to try to stop him.
"It will weirdly help Rauner in the primary," says Walsh. "It will legitimize him if he is the enemy of unions."
Agrees John Tillman, a conservative activist who runs the free-market Illinois Policy Institute: "If you are the guy who is trying to establish your credibility with the fiscally conservative base, there is nothing better than seeing who your opponents are."
Rauner's rivals protest that his nomination would turn a straightforward referendum on the state's fiscal crisis into a messy and expensive call to arms for union activists. But, thus far, the party's pragmatists aren't balking. "Even if they put in $5 million, Rauner is going to have the resources to double or quadruple it," says supporter Pat Brady (no relation to Bill), who served as the state Republican Party chairman until May.
If Rauner seems poised to clear one bar with the base, he could certainly still trip over the second. "The concern about Bruce is less about his social views," Walsh says. "That is an issue that every conservative is going to have to reconcile. What I hear out there is more [concern about] some of his Democratic connections."
For the moment, however, Rauner isn't running away from those associations, if for no other reason than that he hasn't had to. His primary rivals have yet to raise the money to start pummeling him on the air over his Democratic ties.
If he can avoid renouncing those connections long enough, they could become a key asset. Emanuel has said he'll support Quinn in the general election, but it's an open question if he'd go to the mat against an old pal—especially if that pal doesn't pick a fight.
And then, in the general election, Rauner would suddenly be the pro-business reformer with ties to both parties but beholden to neither—not a bad position to be in to face the former second banana to Blagojevich.
This article appears in the January 11, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Bruce Alrighty.