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Rauner ride-along: Gov on thanking Trump, weakening Madigan, beating Pritzker

Gov. Bruce Rauner says he talks to the White House by phone “fairly often.” He believes he has “weakened” House Speaker Mike Madigan.

And he insists he can still beat Democrat J.B. Pritzker if only he can “cut through” the millions of dollars the billionaire is using to “cover up a lot of the truth.”

But the Republican governor refuses to say whether he believes President Donald Trump — who ignored the governor at a weekend rally in southern Illinois — has helped or harmed Rauner’s own candidacy.

“The president is not on the ballot. Who is on the ballot is Pritzker and [Illinois House Speaker Mike] Madigan, and then Rauner and [Lt. Governor Evelyn] Sanguinetti,” Rauner said.

As he travels the state to make his final pitch to voters ahead of next week’s election, Rauner invited the Sun-Times onto his campaign bus for a portion of his suburban stops on Tuesday, a first-time move for the incumbent governor.

One week before the gubernatorial election, Gov. Bruce Rauner sits down for an interview on his campaign bus with Chicago Sun-Times political reporter Tina Sfondeles, Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 20, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-TimesOne week before the gubernatorial election, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner sits down for an interview on his campaign bus with Chicago Sun-Times political reporter Tina Sfondeles, Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 20, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

One week before the gubernatorial election, Gov. Bruce Rauner sits down for an interview on his campaign bus with Chicago Sun-Times political reporter Tina Sfondeles, Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 20, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The governor said he has learned some lessons about how to improve his “messaging,” including spending more time communicating with groups of citizens, meeting one-on-one with the media and using social media more to communicate with people.

He’s in the waning days of a tough re-election battle, and several polls have shown him behind by double digits. And Pritzker is flooding the TV airwaves with millions and millions of dollars worth of campaign ads. Pritzker has broken the national record for self-financing, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, contributing $171.5 million thus far, according to campaign finance records.

Rauner, a former venture capitalist turned politician says “it’s hard to cut through” Pritzker’s advertising onslaught.

“I just don’t have those resources. I made every dollar I’ve ever got and I have put in a huge amount of my net worth. I’ve got to somehow break through the clutter and get to the truth. Because if the truth is known about my opponent, if the truth is known about our policy differences, I firmly believe that we’ll win. But we’ve got to break through all of the false advertising. That’s why I’m sitting with you and getting the truth out.

Rauner called “Pritzker and Madigan being in power together,” a “nightmare for the state,” full of gerrymandered districts and job losses from the corruption, taxes and regulation.

As for Pritzker’s claim that he doled out millions because Rauner started it first — putting in $50 million in December 2016 — the governor called the accusation “ridiculous.”

“He could put in whatever level he wanted, hundred millions more than what I’ve done. That’s so stunningly, it’s in a different league.”

Asked why he didn’t meet with Trump during the president’s weekend rally in Murphysboro, Rauner said they couldn’t make their schedules work and he “had to get back up to Springfield” with “one other stop to make.” He also said his “number one priority” was not to be there for the president, but to help boost support for congressional and legislative candidates.

“We just agreed we’re going to catch up on the phone,” Rauner said. “I was hoping to have the chance, mostly to thank him in person. I talk to the White House on the phone, fairly often. I wanted to thank him in person because what the Trump administration has done to help the people of Illinois on Medicaid and mental health services, $2 billion, and what they’ve done to give us some of the largest transportation grants in Illinois history.”

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On Tuesday, Rauner zigzagged across Chicago and the collar counties, stopping at 11 events, including interviews at WGN, a flu shot with the first lady in Chicago and a closed press town hall meeting with employees at Allstate Insurance headquarters in Northbrook.

Gov. Bruce Rauner and first lady Diana Rauner get their annual flu shot at Walgreens, 151 N. State St., Tuesday morning, Oct. 20, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner and first lady Diana Rauner get their annual flu shot at Walgreens, 151 N. State St., Tuesday morning, Oct. 20, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Asked about how he’ll fit into the history books about Illinois governors, Rauner wouldn’t take the bait. Talk of a first and only term would show voters the governor isn’t confident he’ll win. And Rauner has repeatedly said he doesn’t trust polls.

“I’m so focused on doing the good service today. I haven’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about my place in history,” Rauner said. “I firmly believe that the changes that we need to make can be made, that we’re capable of making them and that they can help fix our problems relatively quickly,” Rauner said, including lowering taxes, fewer regulations, term limits and fair legislative maps.

But he said he will “always be helping” the state, even as a private citizen, whenever that time comes. “Education and jobs are the two things that I care the most about. I’ve done for my whole life since I was in high school and I will never come up on that for Illinois.”

Rauner also claimed Madigan “orchestrated” the budget battles, which ultimately led to a historic and destructive impasse.

Gov. Bruce Rauner and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti speak to employees at ERA Industries in Elk Grove Village after Rauner sat down for an interview on his campaign bus with Chicago Sun-Times political reporter Tina Sfondeles, Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 20, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti speak to employees at ERA Industries in Elk Grove Village after Rauner sat down for an interview on his campaign bus with Chicago Sun-Times political reporter Tina Sfondeles, Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 20, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“Madigan — Pritzker wasn’t around then — Madigan, this was all orchestrated. Madigan’s always thinking. I give the guy credit. He was thinking about this election, that fight in 2015, three years prior. Cause a fight, blame the governor. And Madigan, because he’s so powerful and there are so any elected officials loyal to him, the comptroller, the treasurer, the members of the General Assembly in the super majority, all chattering to you in the media, all saying, ‘Oh it’s the governors’ fault. He’s so unreasonable.”

Rauner said he proposed “so many” budget ideas, compromises and policy reforms: “I was willing to do things that I didn’t agree with but would compromise to get some other good reforms done.”

“It was all to spin. Spin a story of, the governor was the problem,” Rauner said. “I’m one guy. They could do any budget they wanted.”

“We all lost when Madigan won that fight,” he said.

Rauner also said he believes his “Blame Madigan” campaign strategy has “weakened” the speaker.

“I think we’re positioned now because of the fights, because of the our hard work on messaging. I believe Madigan’s weaker,” Rauner said. “I believe the people of Illinois understand better what’s at stake and how destructive he’s been, and I believe that now we’re in a position to get really good progress in my second term.”

And the governor was asked if there was a particular headline or scandal that he believed was overblown during his first term.

“There’s so many. That’s a long list,” he said to laughs. “Why don’t you bring some up, and I’ll tell you.”

“How about all of the staff purge stories,” the Sun-Times asked.

“Oh, that’s not even. Those are so … I don’t pay attention to those.”

“There’s accusations that you’re not loyal,” the Sun-Times replied.

“That is such baloney,” the governor said.