A closer look at gubernatorial faces in the crowd

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If a recent survey is any indicator, Republicans could be looking at a photo finish in the party’s quest to take over the governor’s mansion in November.

The most recent polling on GOP gubernatorial matchups against Gov. Pat Quinn by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling shows each of the four Republican contenders in a virtual dead heat against the incumbent Democrat.

The lumbering, slow-to-recover economy and President Barack Obama’s unpopularity make 2014 a potentially tough year for Democrats, even in the president’s home state.

But first, there’s a March 18 primary with which to contend.

Who in the four-way GOP race will emerge the winner?

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Many anointed Republican Bruce Rauner the presumed front-runner until a major misstep that exploded last week when the multimillionaire said the state’s minimum wage should be slashed by $1 an hour. Still, Rauner has blown away his competitors when it comes to fundraising, having compiled $7 million, including more than $2 million from his personal fortune. He has launched a slew of TV ads trumpeting his hope to “shake up Springfield,” but he also faces the most emotionally packed opposition, including from unions against whom he’s waged a war, as well as another Republican committee that formed to oppose his candidacy.

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and a former longtime political reporter, said Rauner has an edge in the four-way Republican field because of his personal fortune, but the race is wide open.

“For each one of these four candidates, this governorship is clearly winnable,” Yepsen said. “I’d imagine we’ll see the race evolve into a two-layer race. You’ve got Rauner as a leading candidate with the other three trying to position themselves as the non-Rauner candidate.”

State Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, R-Bloomington, both preserved union support — and possible union money — by each voting against the pension-reform bill that Quinn signed into law to the ire of tens of thousands of public-employee union members. Rauner said the bill failed to go far enough. State Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, voted in favor of it.

Public-employee unions so vehemently dislike Rauner that they are poised to unleash a series of ads against the Winnetka venture capitalist, urging primary voters to lean toward any of the three others.

Those three are scrambling to find money after Rauner mopped up the megarich GOP donors. So far, Rutherford has most consistently raised donations while Brady and Dillard have struggled to put together strong fundraising. Rutherford likes to remind people that he’s the only Republican in the race who has already won statewide.

All the while, Quinn faces no major competition, though he has a primary challenger in Tio Hardiman. It gives Quinn a fundraising advantage heading into the general election. With campaign contribution caps off thanks to Rauner’s self-funding, Quinn can operate a lean campaign organization while packing away large checks, including from trade unions.

Yepsen said Quinn, once regarded as the least popular governor in the country in one poll, has staged a bit of a political comeback of late.

Since December, he enacted pension reform, legalized same-sex marriage and scored a win by keeping the proposed new global headquarters of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland in Chicago without use of state tax subsidies.

Quinn is “better off today than he was six months ago, but he’s still on the endangered species list,” Yepsen said. “The race still has a long way to go until November. Lots can happen. But you know, it’s a Democratic state. He’s the incumbent. He’s cleared the primary field. And Democrats are starting to come around to him.”

After Attorney General Lisa Madigan and former White House chief of staff William Daley dropped to the side, Quinn also faces only nominal opposition within the Democratic primary. Hardiman, an anti-violence activist, could be his opponent if his nominating petitions overcome a challenge from the governor. The State Board of Elections could rule next week whether Hardiman will be on the March ballot.

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