Illinois State Senator Bill Brady, State Senator Kirk Dillard, and State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, the candidates who trail businessman Bruce Rauner in the GOP race for governor, took swipes at Rauner in a forum on March 4 hosted by the Institute of Politics, NBC 5 Chicago, and the Harris School of Public Policy at the Reva and David Logan Center. But a We Ask America poll that came out after the forum shows that the race is effectively over two weeks before the primary election on March 18.
The latest polling data shows Bruce Rauner, who was the subject of most of the attacks in Tuesday night’s debate, twenty-five points ahead of Dillard, who is in second place. Rauner has spent more than $6 million of his own money on the campaign, and recently launched an unprecedented advertising blitz that has propelled him to the position of front-runner.
Dillard emphasized the disconnect between the average resident of the state and Rauner, a multimillionaire businessman, after the forum by saying “Bruce Rauner is the king of all pay-to-play politics. He is the ultimate insider.”
In perhaps the most heated moment of the forum, Brady compared Rauner’s proposals to reform Springfield to those of convicted former governor Rod Blagojevich’s 2002 campaign promise to shake up politics in the state’s capital. The comparison drew audible gasps from the crowd. Brady also tried to highlight Rauner’s relative inexperience in politics (Rauner has never run for office) while touting his long career in the Illinois state legislature.
Brady also criticized Rauner’s connection with Stuart Levine, a convicted Republican fundraiser, and attacked Rauner’s financial contributions to his own campaign, saying, “There’s no question that Mr. Rauner’s trying to buy this race.”
Rauner also drew fire from his opponents on the issue of whether or not he used his influence to get his daughter admitted to Walter Payton College Prep, an elite Chicago public high school. Carol Marin, political editor of NBC 5 and the moderator of the forum, asked Rauner whether he had sought the help of former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan in getting his daughter into Payton College Prep. “We did nothing any other parent wouldn’t do,” he said, referring to him and his wife.
But perhaps the most memorable question of the night came midway through the debate, when Marin asked the candidates whether they would welcome a gay couple who wanted to stay overnight in the governor’s mansion. All four candidates answered in the affirmative, but Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford’s fumbling response drew attention to the fact that he is currently being sued for sexual assault by a former campaign worker.
As political pundits have begun to crown Rauner the presumptive nominee, many are beginning to look ahead to the general election fight against incumbent governor Pat Quinn. Rauner said at the forum that he would not put a cap on how much money he personally contributes to his campaign, and that Quinn has a war chest of more than $4.5 million. In the general election, Governor Quinn will surely criticize Rauner for being out of touch with the concerns of residents of the state.
Democrats were hoping that a contentious GOP primary fight would bolster Quinn’s chances at reelection. But Rauner, who will emerge as the unquestionable winner of the GOP primary election on March 18th, could be just the kind of candidate Republicans need to take back the governor’s mansion for the first time in over a decade.