Quinn-Rauner race in crosshairs of national governors' groups

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Two national, opposing political powerhouses in charge of choosing winnable turf battles in 2014 are finding they have a combat zone in common: the state of Illinois.

The Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association, both of which have raised tens of millions of dollars in the first quarter of the year, are zeroing in on the gubernatorial contest between Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn and GOP nominee Bruce Rauner.

Each group is expected to plow millions of dollars into the race in direct donations, outside polling and other shared resources.

In a first show of strength, the RGA gave Rauner $1.5 million, including a $750,000 contribution one day after he won the primary. While the RGA is defending incumbents in 22 states, only four other states received comparable funding so early in the campaigns: Wisconsin, Arkansas, Michigan and South Carolina.

Democrats nationally view Illinois as a must-win. With the party poised to lose some U.S. Senate seats this election cycle and remain a minority in the U.S. House, Democrats see governors’ seats across the country as a possibility to expand power. Not to mention the fact that, if President Barack Obama’s home state went Republican, it would be a monumental embarrassment to the president, not to mention the party.

The RGA, chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, sees Quinn’s tanking poll numbers, combined with Rauner’s attractive ability to commit some of his own millions, as indications that Illinois could finally tilt to the right for the first time in more than a decade. Rauner’s $6.5 million personal investment in the race blew the caps for himself and Quinn in the primary. His campaign says the Winnetka venture capitalist is prepared to dump more cash into the race against Quinn.

Recently, the RGA weighed in on a local issue regarding legislation awaiting Quinn’s signature that aims to deal with a public pension crisis by opening the door to a property tax hike.

“Governor Pat Quinn has a decision to make. Does he stand with his comrade, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and sign legislation that could lead to a property tax hike, or does he stand by taxpayers who have already paid their fair share?” RGA Communications Director Gail Gitcho said in the statement. “One thing is for sure: The people of Chicago and Illinois have seen these failed policies before, and they won’t accept them anymore come November.”

In the primary when Rauner flubbed by saying that Illinois’ minimum wage should be slashed by $1 an hour, then flip-flopped on the issue — the DGA jumped right in.

“Only a right-wing billionaire would think it’s right to take thousands of dollars a year from working people who live on the brink of poverty,” Danny Kanner, the group’s spokesman said.

Rauner says he is not a billionaire but a multimillionaire.

The RGA, however, arguably has more distractions. In addition to Illinois, other vulnerabilities for Democrats include Arkansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Minnesota.

More pressing are bitter battles to retain Republican power in big Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Michigan.

In Wisconsin, partisan political spending is through the roof as Republicans fight to retain Gov. Scott Walker’s position even as Democrats salivate over his struggling poll numbers. The RGA this year has spent $1.8 million in TV ads in that state and another $210,000 in online ads aimed against Democratic challenger Mary Burke.

“These were 100 percent negative, anti-Mary Burke,” ads, said Scot Ross, executive director of the left-leaning One Wisconsin Now.

The same group handling Walker’s ads — Target Enterprises — handles broadcast and digital ads for Rauner in Illinois.

“Illinois is definitely a high priority for the RGA and ranks as one of our top states for offense,” RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said. Thompson said the RGA views the Illinois governor’s race as “very winnable.”

Not so fast, say Democrats.

Democrats will most vigorously defend their holds in two states where incumbent governors are under imminent threat — Illinois and Connecticut. The DGA started its work early in the Illinois race.

Causing a rebuke from the Republican Party in Illinois, the DGA became involved in the Republican primary, attempting to dirty-up Rauner early. At the time, Rauner had been airing ads in the primary that were directed at Quinn and often referred to Quinn as “the worst governor in America.”

During the Illinois primary, the DGA spent $226,500 on anti-Rauner efforts, including to help fund anti-Rauner ads.

The DGA has set up a separate political action committee in Illinois, the DGA-IL PAC, which quickly swelled to $730,950 at the close of the first quarter of 2014. The money, which has flooded in from outside Illinois, is dedicated to preserving Quinn’s leadership.

“Re-electing Pat Quinn is a top priority of the DGA and we’re going to do everything in our power to make it a reality,” Kanner said.

Thompson said the RGA’s strength is shown in numbers — and dollar signs.

“We raised $23.5 million in the first quarter of 2014, while the DGA only raised about half that at $12 million,” Thompson said. “We have more resources to spend on races and ads, and spread the message of our candidates.”

Kanner immediately snapped back at that notion, saying it’s the message and not mere cash.

“Bruce Rauner is fond of bragging about money he has,” Kanner said. “If he thinks that’s going to win the election, he’s going to be severely disappointed.”

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