Gov. Bruce Rauner declared victory on Tuesday night with a battle cry against the Democrats in November — and an olive branch to insurgents within his own party.
“For those of you around Illinois who wanted to send me a message, let me be clear: I have heard you,” Rauner said.
He was addressing a packed room of his supporters at the Chicago Hilton, but the intended audience was clear: the more than 316,000 disenchanted Republican voters who sided with his far-right challenger, state Rep. Jeanne Ives.
“While we disagree on some things, let’s commit to working together on what unites us,” he said, renewing his calls for term limits, lower taxes, more jobs and an end to corruption.
In a race that was once all but considered a given, Rauner edged out Ives with 51.7 percent of the vote to Ives’ 48.3 percent, with 94 percent of precincts reporting.
“It is still one of the most historic nights ever in the state of Illinois,” Ives told supporters at her gathering in Glen Ellyn as she conceded late Tuesday. “Today, the popular vote against the political ruling class fell just a bit short. But I will tell you, we are very proud of the effort that we have made in this campaign.”
Rauner commended Ives for her “principled stand.”
“Change is hard. It’s been a difficult few years,” he said. “But nothing important is ever easy.”
Still, it wasn’t expected to be that difficult.
For months, Rauner had shown little concern about Ives and her campaign to unseat him for the Republican nomination for governor. He cast the Wheaton Republican as part of a set of “fringe elements,” instead looking forward to a general-election matchup with Democrat J.B. Pritzker.
That prediction came to fruition Tuesday with a victory by 3.4 percentage points, helping Rauner avoid becoming the first sitting Illinois governor in 42 years to lose his party’s nomination.
“This is an insurgent campaign that started less than five months ago and to come this close to taking out the worst Republican governor in America is phenomenal,” Ives said.
Ives’ launched her campaign last fall, feeding off the conservative backlash against Rauner’s decision to sign legislation expanding public funding of abortion, a move that alienated much of his Republican base as the “ultimate betrayal.”
Coupled with Rauner’s signing of bills that limit local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities, and that allowed transgender people to change the sex noted on their birth certificates, Ives’ supporters lambasted Rauner as a “RINO” — Republican in name only.
“He has disappointed us and betrayed us on various issues,” Ives supporter Cynthia Hopkins said at the challenger’s Election Night party at Abbington Banquet Hall.
Ives zeroed in on those issues in her first televised campaign ad in early February, a minute-long spot featuring a man in a woman’s dress thanking Rauner for “letting me use the girls’ bathroom.” The ad was slammed from both sides of the aisle as offensive, but it earned Ives nationwide notoriety as a right-wing presence.
Rauner jumped into politics in 2014 billing himself as a reformer of corrupt Illinois politics, but change was hard to come by for Rauner Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, culminating in a two-year budget impasse.
With a campaign war chest dwarfing Ives’, Rauner’s confidence was backed up by a Feb. 28 poll showing him with a 20-percentage-point lead. But a week out of the primary, Ives’ campaign said their internal polling put her within 7 percentage points.
On Tuesday night, the governor called for “unity” in taking on Pritzker, slamming the Democratic contender as Madigan’s “handpicked candidate.”
“The future of our children and grandchildren hangs in the balance,” Rauner said. “The election in November will be a choice, a clear choice, a choice between someone who will stand up to the machine, and someone who has long been part of it.”