When Bruce Rauner ran for governor in 2014, he was a political blank slate elected as a pro-business outsider who professed to have no social agenda but a strong desire to shake up the status quo of a Democratically controlled Springfield.
Now nearly three years into his term, the Republican governor’s slate appears almost indecipherable.
Rauner signed into law high-profile, Democrat-backed bills on abortion, immigration and voter rights, prompting questions as to who his base of support is as he seeks re-election, whether he’ll catch a primary challenge and how he’ll deal with Republican lawmakers going forward.
Rauner was already besieged by attacks from would-be Democratic challengers, and now socially conservative Republicans are echoing the partisan attacks, accusing the governor of being a liar who betrayed them. The impetus was Rauner’s decision Thursday to approve a bill to expand taxpayer-subsidized abortions to poor women and to women covered by state employee health insurance.
It’s the latest high-drama episode for Rauner, who in recent months has zigzagged between the political right and political left.
A tempestuous summer saw Rauner lose a lengthy budget battle as Republicans joined Democrats in approving a major income-tax increase. Rauner quickly jettisoned a staff of political moderates for a group heavily aligned to the GOP right, only to discard several of them weeks later.
Rauner’s decision not to pick a lane and stay in it has prompted some Republicans to question if the governor fully comprehends the complexity of governing and politics and whether he might be better off seeking re-election as a Democrat. It’s quite the turn for Rauner, a former private equity investor who famously declared as a candidate that “I’ve been a success at everything I’ve done.”
House Republican floor leader Rep. Peter Breen, a prominent attorney opposed to abortion rights, said he was tired of watching a governor “unable to adequately and competently administer Illinois government.”
Attempting to minimize the internal GOP fallout, Rauner’s campaign sent out an email to supporters Friday explaining the governor’s decision as showing he “puts the people of Illinois before the pressures of politics.”
“After long conversations with advocates on both sides of the issue, Gov. Rauner followed through on a campaign promise signing legislation protecting the right to choose for Illinois women,” the email said. “The governor has always spoken his mind throughout his time in office and on Thursday he stood up for the rights of women across the state.”
Acknowledging the controversy Rauner’s action caused, the campaign featured defenses by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti and GOP attorney general candidate Erika Harold. “While some disagreed with the decision, noted pro-life Republicans expressed the need to rally around the governor on the big issues facing Illinois,” the email noted.
During another era of Illinois Republican politics, Rauner’s signature on the abortion bill might have been controversial, but not necessarily as threatening politically.
In 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan, a Republican who had long been an abortion-rights opponent, vetoed legislation to ban Medicaid funding for abortions for poor women whose health was in danger.
Ryan said then that he viewed his action as a “no-win” situation, and he was vilified by social conservatives. At the time, Dan Cronin, then the Senate sponsor and now DuPage County Board chairman, said of Ryan, “Either he was a fake (on opposing abortion) all these years before or he’s a fake now.”
Still, the Illinois GOP during that time was led by social moderates, and in 2006 it nominated for governor Judy Baar Topinka, the late treasurer and an advocate of abortion rights and gay rights.
Reflecting national tendencies, the GOP in Illinois has changed and now carries much stronger conservative overtones. After Ryan went to prison, the party spent years in the political wilderness.
Rauner used his money and power to rebuild the Illinois Republican Party and ensure loyalty to him. Still, it’s unclear now whether Rauner’s wealth will be able to keep rank-and-file Republicans in line.
Writing “big campaign checks,” Breen contended, is “the only unique feature left in Rauner’s favor” and something that may make others reluctant to criticize the governor. That means “we’re going to have to find alternate sources of funding,” he said.
Showing exasperation, some Republicans broke ranks in July to override the governor’s veto of a tax-hike budget package. That closed a nearly 2 1/2-year ideological stalemate between Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan and the Democratic-led legislature that hurt the state’s social service safety net, threatened its higher education network, escalated its unpaid bills and posed the potential for junk bond status.
Rauner also signed into law a bill that protects immigrants who are in the country illegally from being detained solely because of their immigration status. He did so even though part of Republican President Donald Trump‘s appeal in 2016 was a hard-line stance against illegal immigration and “sanctuary” status for cities and states.
The governor approved a measure to make voting registration all but automatic when getting or updating a driver’s license or seeking other state assistance, something viewed as beneficial to Democrats at a time when some GOP lawmakers contend voting rules are too loose.
Rauner also traveled around the state criticizing a new education funding formula as a “bailout” to the Chicago Public Schools, providing red meat language for a candidate campaigning Downstate. Ultimately, Rauner signed a different school funding measure that gave CPS even more money than the bill that he had attacked.
As a concession to conservative Republicans, the school funding measure included money for a new program worth up to $100 million to provide scholarships for children to attend private or parochial schools through a state income-tax credit system.
The goodwill Rauner earned with those Republicans was washed away by his signature on the abortion legislation, which supporters said also would ensure the procedure would remain legal in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
“People are looking at the situation and saying, ‘Where is the Rauner base?'” asked state Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills, a Republican who doesn’t always agree with party leaders.
“You’ve got Trump in the White House, and we’ve got a guy who signed ‘sanctuary’ state (immigration legislation), full taxpayer funding of abortions, we’ve seen an income tax hike, $16 billion in overdue bills. I don’t know where his base is,” he said.
In the case of the abortion legislation, Rauner created a no-win situation by promising as a candidate in 2014 to support expansion of taxpayer-subsidized abortions. But in April, in the midst of the prolonged budget battle with Madigan and Democrats, he vowed to veto the measure outright, which helped keep Republican lawmakers united with him.
It meant Rauner had made promises to each side, and one of them was going to be broken. Knowing that, Democrats allowed the issue to linger by delaying sending the bill to him until last Monday as pressure built on the governor from each side.
Signing the bill drew appreciation from abortion rights advocates and praise from liberal newspaper columnists, but neither are likely to offer Rauner much help if he runs against a Democrat for re-election next year.
On Friday, Breen said Rauner now has “lame duck” status and that GOP rank and file should work to reach a consensus on a candidate to challenge the governor in the primary.
While finding a highly qualified contender is a challenge, a primary battle could inflict even more damage on Rauner at a time the GOP faces a serious challenge to holding the governorship from Democrats. The schisms from a primary fight could serve to dampen Republican turnout, even as Democrats and some Republicans sense the 2018 general election could become a wave election for Democrats due to Trump.
More immediately, though, there are prospects for a potentially raucous return of the General Assembly when lawmakers reconvene in late October and for their regular session in January.
With Rauner under attack from his own members, some Republicans said privately they see Madigan, who has played the role of the governor’s chief political nemesis, using the legislature to seek votes on measures aimed at embarrassing the chief executive and showing lack of GOP legislative support.
Publicly, both Republican leaders — Jim Durkin in the House and Bill Brady in the Senate — sought to minimize the political damage within their caucuses by saying their common interests in improving Illinois remained an important goal despite the disappointment.
But privately, one top Republican legislative aide said a rough fall session could just be a prologue for an even tougher spring session with the governor campaign in full gear and Rauner looking for wins to help a re-election agenda.
“Don’t come to us expecting us to fall in line like we have for the last three years,” the aide said.
“Yes, there are still a vast majority of things the (GOP) caucus and Rauner agree on. In the past, some of those they didn’t agree on, they still held their nose and voted for it. Don’t expect that to happen,” he said.
Breen, as House GOP floor leader, acknowledged as much about Rauner.
“I will not be supporting him politically. And otherwise, I’m going to make the call one way or the other on bills as they come before us,” said Breen, of Lombard. “Whether or not they are able to agree publicly, I know hundreds of elected Republicans, along with hundreds of thousands of Republican voters, who feel the same way I do.”