Just six weeks after hitching his political future and much of his government to a group of hard-line conservatives, Gov. Bruce Rauner and the newcomers are headed to couples counseling and potentially a quickie divorce.
At issue in the separation, which involves not only political control but a reported $30 million in promised campaign donations, is whether Rauner will return to the sometimes moderate style he displayed when his inner circle was compromised of veterans of former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk’s office or instead follow the more confrontational advice of arch-conservative consultant and operative Dan Proft and of the Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian Chicago think tank.
Already, a deal in which Proft and donors closely connected to him were to have big influence in GOP legislative races next year has hit complications, with a top Proft associate stepping down as chief strategist of the governor’s re-election campaign. And some top IPI staffers who went to work for the governor’s office were fired or quit, with others rumored to be on the way out.
Meanwhile, things could heat up even more if Rauner signs a pending bill to guarantee abortion coverage for women on Medicaid and state employees. Doing so might infuriate much of the political right, but that didn’t stop the governor from recently signing an almost-as-controversial “motor voter” registration measure and a bill limiting the ability of local police to arrest illegal immigrants.
The marriage “is over. That relationship is gone,” says one top GOP insider who asked not to be named. “I think (Rauner) quickly realized the error of his ways.”
Officially, the Rauner camp is blowing off any sign of feuding. “This story is filled with rumors that are false, ridiculous and clearly being made by people with an ax to grind,” said a spokesman, who declined comment on the abortion bill or further staff changes.
Proft declined to comment.
IPI chief John Tillman, in an email, said there was no connection between Rauner’s July staff hires of ex-IPI hands and campaign contributions. He also defended the recent deal the governor struck on a school-aid package, saying the deal negotiated in part by Rauner chief of staff Kristina Rasmussen, who used to work for Tillman, was a good one.
But he did not deny some tension exists. “(Rauner) speaks to many people. I am just one of many voices he listens to,” Tillman said. “Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree. . . .He is the principal. He makes his own decisions.”
Here’s the background, based on interviews with more than a dozen knowledgeable sources.
According to several Rauner administration veterans, a certain jockeying had occurred for years between the Kirk folks and the Tillman/Proft camp. In some ways, the competition parallels the dispute within President Donald Trump’s administration between the Steve Bannon revolutionists and more traditional Republicans.
Here in Illinois, I’m told, that jockeying turned much sharper after the General Assembly in July overrode the governor’s veto of a new state budget and tax hike, an embarrassing incident he did not expect to occur.
On the heels of that setback, Rauner made a series of high-level staff changes, firing his chief of staff and his communication staff, with his general counsel and top campaign strategist Mike Zolnierowicz departing shortly thereafter.
Those departures occurred in early July, and were widely reported in the media.
What hasn’t been reported is that around that time Proft and top donors, including industrialist Dick Uihlein, offered to sharply step up activity on Rauner’s behalf.
One source says they agreed to raise up to $30 million for legislative races, something that would allow Rauner to focus his own resources on his own re-election, in which he may end up running against Democratic billionaire J.B. Pritzker. Another source says there was an explicit understanding that, in exchange, Proft would pretty much run the legislative races and IPI staffers would come into senior government jobs. A third source says the $30 million offer wasn’t made until after the July staff shakeup.
Whatever, several IPI staffers did come over, including Rasmussen and the new communications director, Diana Rickert. They helped draft an amendatory veto of the school aid bill that included a variety of clauses dealing with matters such as tax caps and tax increment financing that fit libertarian ideology, but seemed way off point to many lawmakers.
Then, in early August, a cartoon posted by IPI on tax-increment financing and the funding bill came under fire for allegedly having racist undertones. And Rickert was ousted after, without checking with Rauner, she released a statement in his name saying he couldn’t comment on the cartoon since he is a “white male.”
In the midst of that brouhaha, Proft on his radio show, which is sponsored by IPI, sharply criticized as “providing political cover for the Democrats,” state Rep. Tom Denner, a conservative downstate Republican who had attacked the cartoon. At the same time, talk spread that Proft and associates were looking for “true conservatives” to challenge some incumbent GOP lawmakers in next spring’s primaries.
Such events sparked personal complaints to Rauner from Jim Durkin and Bill Brady, the GOP leaders of the Illinois House and Senate. In a meeting with him on Aug. 23, both complained about attacks on their members and asked him to step in, four sources close to the matter tell me.
Durkin and Brady’s spokeswomen declined to comment on what they categorized as private meeting. But in the wake of that get-together, the Proft group moved to run its own legislative operation without Rauner, sources close to the matter tell me. And Rauner began veering to the left on key legislative matters, notably praising the schools bill that he’s spent a month ripping as a “bailout” of Chicago Public Schools.
Another source tells me some of the conservatives met a few days ago with Diana Rauner, the governor’s wife, in what is described as a “very difficult” session.
At the moment, Rauner has no known opponent in the GOP primary. But this nasty divorce could play out in unexpected ways.
One veteran GOP operative says it’s not quite clear who’s doing what. But other outside political consultants brought in by Rauner when Zolnierowicz left likely have told him that, in Democratic-leaning Illinois, it’s smarter to act like former GOP Gov. Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar.
Rauner himself may not know. But continue to look for more rolling-pin-wielding in his bumpy marriage with the GOP’s hard right.