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Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013 12:01 am

Plays for governor

 By now, it should be self evident that Bruce Rauner has locked up pretty much all the big money in the Republican primary race for governor. Last week’s pension reform vote provides even more evidence.

Rauner has built an impenetrable fortress of high-dollar campaign contributors. Ron Gidwitz, long known in GOP circles for being the gateway to big-time cash from the wealthy, has fully joined in, as has the richest man in Illinois, Ken Griffin.

Gidwitz was with Sen. Kirk Dillard in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, but Gidwitz and Rauner have sucked up so many dollars – including over $250,000 from campaign fundraising committee member Griffin and lots more from Griffin’s friends – that Dillard hasn’t been able to raise any cash from rich people he’s known for years, even decades. Dillard’s financial predicament has become so desperate that he voted against last week’s pension reform bill in the obvious hope that he can now raise some dough from public employee unions.

Dillard’s vote is even more bizarre when you realize that he voted against a union-negotiated pension bill back in May and twice voted in favor of House Speaker Michael Madigan’s pension reform bill in May and June. He really had no choice last week. It was sink or swim time. Whether a gubernatorial candidate can win a 2014 Republican primary with union backing remains to be seen, but it appears highly unlikely from this vantage point. If Dillard does win any public worker union endorsements, Rauner can then whack him with a “pay to play” charge and beat him over the head for taking “big government union boss” dollars.

The same goes for Treasurer Dan Rutherford. The treasurer isn’t facing a gubernatorial campaign cash crisis like Dillard, but he hasn’t been able to raise the big bucks to compete with Rauner, who is reporting new six figure contributions almost every day. Rutherford said not long ago that a pension reform bill should be passed so that its constitutionality could be litigated in the courts. Last week, Rutherford sided with the unions and said that he opposed the bill because he believed it to be unconstitutional.

For three solid years, state Rep. Tom Cross constantly insisted to his caucus that pension reform absolutely had to be passed, even though the majority of his members sided with the unions. That split eventually became so bitterly intense that Cross could no longer effectively continue as House Republican Leader.

Yet, when push came to shove, Cross voted “no.”

Huh?

Well, he could’ve gone for the easy newspaper endorsements and the “regular” Statehouse money, but Cross knows that his best fundraising year as House GOP Leader came in 2010 – when Ken Griffin and his independently wealthy wife, Ann, contributed huge dollars to his cause and helped him raise even more money from their super-rich friends.

A “yes” vote could’ve meant no Griffin cash for Cross (Griffin penned a recent Chicago Tribune op-ed slamming the pension bill with Rauner campaign talking points and his wife reportedly made several phone calls to House Republicans last week). So, Cross went with the money.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk has been courting the Griffins and their bank accounts for several years. One of Kirk’s top political guys is now working for Rauner. So, in retrospect, Sen. Kirk’s aggressive statement opposing the pension bill last week should’ve been no surprise. But it sure as heck freaked out a lot of legislative Republicans, particularly in the House. Twenty-two House Republicans voted for Speaker Madigan’s pension bill in May, but just 15 voted for a similar bill last week that had been negotiated by their own newly elected leader, Rep. Jim Durkin. Sen. Kirk’s opposition was crucial to that precipitous decline.

Speaker Madigan claimed last week that Rauner had made a “political mistake” when he tried and failed to “blow up” the process and kill the pension bill.

Governmentally, Rauner’s behavior was appalling. It showed that he would be a needlessly confrontational and even irresponsible governor. But this was no political loss. Instead, it officially heralded a new era in GOP politics.

Ken Griffin told the Tribune last year that the ultra wealthy “actually have an insufficient influence” on politics. And now, Griffin, Rauner and the rest of the ultra-wealthy are making a big play to take over the party and then the governor’s mansion. Everybody else had better pay attention.  

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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