SPRINGFIELD — The two Republicans who dueled for the governorship in the photo-finish 2010 primary used Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair Thursday to deliver a one-two punch against 2014 rival Bruce Rauner, zeroing in on the billionaire venture capitalist’s close ties to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
State Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), the 2010 GOP nominee, and state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) initiated the dust-up on a day otherwise devoted to making catcalls at Democrats and giving the quartet of Republican gubernatorial wannabes that also included state Treasurer Dan Rutherford a platform to energize the GOP base heading into the 2014 elections.
There was the usual Americana-feel to the party’s annual rally at the dusty State Fairground, where the smells of the livestock barns, corn dogs and deep-fried delicacies provided a sensory complement to an afternoon of political speech-making.
A larger crowd than at past Republican Days at the fair showed up to see U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who suffered partial paralysis from a stroke last year, start the event by hobbling onto the stage with a cane and delivering an emotional message to several hundred party followers: “Never give up.”
But such calls for unity among the gubernatorial cast of characters lasted only until the speeches ended when the storyline of the day evolved, focusing on Rauner’s friendship and past dealings with Emanuel.
Brady called that association a “non-starter” for Republican primary voters and, in a dig at the state Senate colleague he defeated by 193 votes in 2010, likened it to Dillard’s decision to film a 2008 campaign commercial for Barack Obama when the Democrat was running for president.
“People are tired of this one-city, one-party rule and the connections to Rahm,” Brady told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s a huge liability for a Republican, just as the Obama connection to Dillard is a huge liability.”
Dillard, who defended himself by noting he spoke out against Obama’s push for universal health care in Illinois when the president was a state senator, jumped on Rauner, as well.
“It’s incredibly troubling that a man who is constantly referred to as a member of Rahm Emanuel’s inner circle, who vacations with the mayor, according to the Chicago Sun Times columnist Mike Sneed, and [who] also is another city of Chicago resident is running for governor,” Dillard said.
Rauner resides in Winnetka but has a Chicago condo overlooking Grant Park.
“We need a geographic balance. We don’t need someone who’s that closely associated with Mayor Emanuel, in my estimation, running for governor,” Dillard continued. “We’ve had enough total City Hall, Chicago control of state government. They’ve pile-driven this state economically into the ground.”
Rauner encouraged Emanuel to choose a career in investment banking after the future mayor stepped down as a Clinton aide, and Emanuel represented Rauner’s private equity firm in the 2001 purchase of a home-security firm from SBC Communications. At the time, SBC was headed by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Daley.
Rauner and Emanuel also have collaborated on several education-reform initiatives since then — work Rauner said Thursday he would “never apologize for.”
Rauner said his true ideology and wallet are vested in conservative causes not aligned with the mayor.
“I’m as conservative as anybody in this race by a lot. And my donations to conservative causes – Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity, the Illinois Policy Institute, the Cato Institute – are 100x what I gave to Rahm. And I’ve given to far more Republicans, far more money, than to Rahm,” Rauner told the Sun-Times.
“For somebody to try to say, ‘Well, you touched Rahm or worked with them. … Y ou know what? If we’re going to get stuff done, if the Democrats control [things], we’ve got to do something to work with them. I won’t apologize, and I won’t back down,” he said.
Rauner, who has pledged to spend millions of dollars from his fortune on his campaign, also chalked up the criticism to “desperate” rivals.
“You know what? In politics, when you’re desperate to win, you say stuff,” he said.
The field of Republican candidates for the governorship still has no clear-cut frontrunner, though Brady is in the lead, according to a Capitol Fax poll of 1,102 likely Republican primary voters released this week.
In the Aug 13 survey by We Ask America, the polling arm of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, Brady had 21 percent of those surveyed, compared to 17 percent for Rutherford, 14 percent for Rauner and 10 percent for Dillard.
Before Thursday’s Rauner pile-on, the day started out in a mostly genteel manner when all four contenders for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination went before the Republican County Chairmen’s Association and focused on Illinois’ teetering financial condition under four years of Quinn and a decade of all-Democratic control at the Statehouse.
Wearing Wrangler jeans, Rauner rode up to Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair on his motorcycle, while Brady sported a pair of worn, white Nike Airs to ridicule a colorful Quinn statement from the day before.
At Governor’s Day, Quinn boasted he could defeat any Democratic challenger and, as proof, held up Brady as a political pelt, noting that the Bloomington Republican is still “looking for his gym shoes” after losing the 2010 governor’s race by almost 32,000 votes.
“Gov. Quinn, I’ve got my running shoes on today, and game on tomorrow for the next gubernatorial race for the state of Illinois,” Brady yelled.
Rutherford, meanwhile, said what sets him apart from the others gunning for the party’s 2014 nomination is his 2010 showing during his run for treasurer in which he outperformed Quinn in overall votes and drew 22 percent of the vote in Chicago – exceeding a 20-percent vote benchmark Rutherford said is essential in the city for any winning GOP candidate.
“I’m the only candidate running for governor that’s actually won a statewide race,” Rutherford said, emphasizing later how he drew 66,000 more votes than Quinn did in his winning race against Brady.
“I know how to win,” Rutherford said.
Despite the day’s sniping and focus on gubernatorial politics, state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka — the party’s longest-tenured and most colorful ballot presence — kept the day’s events on script by noting how the larger crowd at Republican Day this year demonstrated an uncharacteristic “electricity in the air” that might foreshadow a change in fortunes in 2014 for the state’s long-suffering GOP.
“Folks here in the state of Illinois have finally had enough. They’ve seen a state totally run by our little friends over in the Democratic Party. And they’ve seen a state suffer something terribly and embarrassment … nationally, where we’re taking on heat all the time for the fiscal problems of this state,” she said. “And basically, [voters] have said, ‘You know, it’s time for a change, not hokey-dokey change. Real-live change.’”