By Kim Geiger
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner narrowly defeated state Rep. Jeanne Ives on Tuesday night, escaping a primary challenge from a conservative lawmaker he'd once dismissed as a "fringe" candidate.
The first-term governor congratulated his challenger "on her principled stand" and called on Republicans to join together for the fall contest against Democrat J.B. Pritzker.
"I am honored and humbled by this victory," Rauner said. "You have given me the chance to win the battle against the corruption that plagues Illinois."
"To those around the state of Illinois who wanted to send me a message, let me be clear," Rauner said. "I have heard you. I have traveled the state and I have listened to you. While we disagree on some things, let's commit to working together on what unites us -- the reforms we need to save our state."
With 87 percent of Illinois precincts reporting, unofficial returns had Rauner with 51.6 percent of the vote to 48.4 percent for Ives. Rauner carried the city and suburban Cook County, but the candidates were neck and neck in the collar counties, with DuPage County votes still outstanding. Downstate, Rauner had a slight lead over Ives.
The closeness of the contest represents a significant blow to a deep-pocketed governor who began his primary campaign a year ago with an eye toward the general election, not expecting to have to defend himself to Republican voters.
Ives, who was vastly outspent, conceded defeat shortly after Rauner's victory speech, saying "we proved that the grassroots cannot be taken advantage of."
"You know as I know that Bruce Rauner had to be challenged in this election. But today the popular revolt against the political ruling class fell just a bit short," she told supporters at a campaign event in Glen Ellyn. "When you think about how far we have come in less than five months, it is astounding."
Ives, however, did not pledge to support Rauner in the November election during her speech.
The three-term lawmaker from Wheaton had pitched herself to GOP voters as the one who could revive the "taxpayer revolt" that she said Rauner had failed to lead.
Rauner, a former private equity executive whose 2014 campaign pledge to "shake up Springfield" materialized as a record two-year budget impasse and intense partisan gridlock at the Capitol, sold himself as the only hope for continuing to chip away at the power of entrenched Democrats led by House Speaker Michael Madigan.
The contest was a test of Rauner's standing with both conservative voters and suburban moderates and their willingness to turn out for him as he tries to rebuild the coalition that delivered him a narrow victory over Democrat Pat Quinn in 2014.
As such, Rauner has spent much of the past year attempting to strike a balance between those key voting blocs. Last fall, he signed into law bills to expand taxpayer funding of abortions and extend what critics say were sanctuary-like protections to immigrants, angering conservatives. Last week, however, Rauner rejected a measure to tighten state oversight of gun dealers in a move viewed as trying to appeal to Downstate and conservatives at the risk of alienating suburban moderates.
That approach is what created the opening for the challenge from Ives, one of the General Assembly's most outspoken Republicans.
Ives argued that Rauner had abandoned his conservative base and broken his promise to govern without a social agenda when he signed the abortion measure into law. She banked that a riled-up conservative base would be receptive to the argument. And some of the forces that had been allied with Rauner lined up in Ives' corner, including conservative mega-donor Richard Uihlein and Republican operative Dan Proft.
Rauner initially tried to dismiss Ives as a "fringe" candidate, preferring to focus his attention and firepower on wealthy Democratic governor hopeful J.B. Pritzker. Rauner had only one head-to-head appearance with Ives, in late January before the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. There, Ives delivered a crushing critique of Rauner's tenure. The encounter buoyed her candidacy, driving attention and money to her upstart campaign.
Still, Ives was far outmatched on the financial front. She raised just $4 million, more than half of it from Uihlein. Ives' campaign once said it would need at least $10 million to run an effective campaign. Rauner gave his campaign $50 million in late 2016 and spent $16.5 million on TV ads attacking Pritzker and Ives.
But Rauner's attempts to keep a hold on his shaky coalition of conservative and moderate Republican voters and some fed-up Democrats provided regular fodder for Ives, a staunch conservative who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Rauner, by contrast, consistently has tried to avoid even mentioning the Republican president by name in public.
The question in the race soon became whether Rauner's money and more mainstream appeal would be enough to fend off the attack from his right. By Tuesday, even the governor was unsure, telling radio hosts that he expected the results to be "closer than anybody thought."
By that point, the race had become a mudslinging contest in which each candidate -- and some outside forces -- tried to paint the other as a liberal plant.
Rauner seized on comments made by Ives at the Tribune appearance in which she'd criticized the governor for "picking on Mike Madigan," the longtime House speaker and Democratic Party chairman whom Rauner has blamed for the state's ills.
In an ad, Rauner labeled Ives "Madigan's favorite Republican." The accusation drew broad criticism, as Ives, a onetime Rauner ally, has been known at the Statehouse as one of the most aggressive critics of Democrats, including Madigan.
For her part, Ives aired a controversial ad that highlighted some of the bills Rauner had signed over the objections of conservatives.
The ad featured an actor portraying a transgender woman thanking the governor for signing a law expanding trans rights, a woman wearing a pink protest hat thanking the governor for making Illinois families "pay for my abortions," and a hoodie-wearing man with his face covered by a bandana thanking Rauner for making Illinois a "sanctuary state for illegal immigrant criminals."
The ad was condemned quickly as offensive to the groups it portrayed, criticism Ives dismissed as "hysteria." It won her plenty of free media attention, which one House GOP ally said was the point.
In the final days of the campaign, the Democratic Governors Association swept in with ads that attacked Ives' conservative credentials while criticizing Rauner. The spots had the effect of boosting Ives' central message with her supporters, potentially hurting Rauner at the polls.
The governor blasted the nearly half-million-dollar ad buy as an attempt by Washington liberals to "interfere" in the primary, contending it was a sign that the other side had identified him as the tougher candidate to beat in November.
Chicago Tribune's Jeff Coen and Stacy St. Clair contributed.
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