How Did This Man Become a Serious GOP Candidate?

A pro-choice friend of Rahm’s has a real shot at winning the GOP gubernatorial primary in Illinois.

In this April 1, 2013, photo, Republican venture capitalist Bruce Rauner speaks after attending a meeting of The Illinois Business Immigration Coalition in Chicago. Rauner said is he running for Illinois governor in 2014. He will face state Treasurer Dan Rutherford in the GOP primary. Republican Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady also have expressed interest. 
Daniel Libit
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Daniel Libit
Jan. 13, 2014, midnight

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.

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