CHICAGO – Venture capitalist Bruce Rauner won the GOP primary Tuesday in his bid for Illinois governor, as voters embraced a first campaign by the multimillionaire who flooded the airwaves with vows to run the Democratic stronghold like a business and curb the influence of government unions.
With Republicans eyeing what they view as their best shot in years to win the top job in President Barack Obama's home state, Rauner defeated three longtime state lawmakers — including the current state treasurer. He advances to a November matchup with Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who easily won his nomination for a second full term.
"The voters are going to face a stark choice in November, a major decision about the future of our state," Rauner said in his victory speech. "It's a choice between failure of the past and a new day."
Between Quinn and predecessor Rod Blagojevich, now imprisoned for corruption, Democrats have held the governorship since 2003. But Rauner could present a serious threat, partly due to a massive fundraising campaign that included contributing more than $6 million of his own money.
For voters across Illinois, the governor's race represents a potentially transformative battle over union influence, with some voters saying they want to break an alliance between organized labor and Democrats, who have long controlled most statewide offices and the Legislature.
Organized labor battled back out of concern that Rauner could seek to weaken unions in the same way GOP governors have in other states across the Midwest.
Quinn's first re-election ad of the season — focusing on Rauner's evolving stance on raising the minimum wage — hit the airwaves Tuesday evening. Quinn has called for increasing the state's rate from $8.25 to at least $10 an hour. Rauner had initially called for a cut and later said he'd raise it under certain circumstances.
"I'm here to fight for an economy that works for everyone," Quinn said Tuesday night. "Not just the billionaires, but for everyone."
Rauner says he would model his governorship after those of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Both significantly rolled back union power in what they said were necessary steps to attract business and reduce costs. Rauner defeated state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford in the primary.
"Rauner is going to be a bull in a china shop; we need a bull," said Tom Sommer, a 57-year-old real estate broker from the Chicago suburb Hinsdale. "It's not going to be more of the same."
Issues such as a public pension overhaul and high taxes "are coming to the fore and the old guard is not going to handle that," Sommer said, adding that he voted for Rauner because of his tough talk against the unions that represent public sector workers. That sentiment persists despite Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's push to fix Illinois' finances by overhauling the heavily underwater public pension systems, which earned him the unions' ire.
Rauner has also won supporters with his call for term limits.
Union leaders, meanwhile, sought Rauner's defeat by encouraging members to pull Republican ballots and vote for Dillard, who picked up several union endorsements.
The typically left-leaning unions spent more than $6 million on the GOP primary, both in anti-Rauner and pro-Dillard ads. Rauner raised more than $14 million, including $6 million of his own money — more than any candidate seeking a gubernatorial nomination in state history.
Rauner warned supporters about the unions' efforts, saying Quinn's "allies" were trying to hijack the election. He said legislative term limits could break the labor-Democratic alliance.
The race turned out to be far closer than polls suggested. With nearly all precincts reporting, Rauner's edge over Dillard was slightly more than 2 percentage points.
In southern Illinois, voters had another reason to want to upend the state's political order, saying they felt marginalized and neglected by a political balance weighted toward Democrats and the Chicago region.
In the last 10 years, things have gotten really bad (in the state)," said Marty Johns, 48, of Godfrey. "Throw out all the Democrats in Chicago. All of our money goes up there while southern Illinois gets the crumbs."
Johns said he voted for Dillard to "remove Quinn."
Quinn, who was Blagojevich's lieutenant governor and assumed the office after he was booted amid a corruption scandal, easily defeated a lesser-known primary challenger Tio Hardiman in his bid for a second full term.
Brady won the 2010 GOP nomination, but lost the general election to Quinn. Brady, of Bloomington, argued he built the support during that bid to defeat Quinn this time around.
Rutherford, of Chenoa, did little campaigning recently. He all but conceded defeat after a former employee filed a federal lawsuit accusing Rutherford of sexual harassment and political coercion. Rutherford denied the allegations.
Republican primary voters also chose state Sen. Jim Oberweis, a dairy magnate, to run in November against U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat. Oberweis, who defeated businessman and West Point graduate Doug Truax in the primary, has lost five of his six bids for public office.
Also on the ballot were primary races for the U.S. House, Illinois Legislature and statewide constitutional officers.
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Associated Press writers Don Babwin in Hinsdale, Ill., Jim Suhr in Godfrey, Ill., David Mercer in LeRoy, Ill., John O'Connor in Springfield, Ill., Michael Tarm in Winnetka, Ill., contributed.