There is mounting worry among Illinois Republicans that the fractious nature of their gubernatorial primary on Tuesday may destroy their chances in November.
Four major candidates are vying for the nomination to oppose Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who has overseen tax increases and a resulting flight of business from the state since he took office in 2009.
In recent weeks, however, the GOP contest has boiled down to a two-candidate bout between Bruce Rauner, multimillionaire head of the R8 Capital Partners private equity firm, and state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who lost the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary by less than 300 votes.
"Bruce has the same business background as Mitt Romney and he knows how to fix Illinois," veteran conservative activist Jim Bassett told Newsmax. "And his long private-sector support of charter schools is what we need."
Having spent $14 million so far, Rauner held a comfortable two-digit lead over Dillard until a week ago.
The certainty of the businessman-candidate's nomination has since been placed in doubt following an independent broadside of "attack spots" highlighting Rauner's ties to Democrats and what opponents consider his "nonconservative" positions.
In an exclusive interview with Newsmax, Steve Shearer, former top aide to Republican Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois and now head of the Republican Fund for Progress and Jobs, which opposes Rauner, explained why his group has spent more than $1.1 million attacking the party's gubernatorial frontrunner.
Rauner "has spent a lot of his own money and he has received money from every state — mostly from Democrats," Shearer told Newsmax.
"And that has something to do with the contributions he makes: $300,000 to Pennsylvania's former Democratic governor and former Democratic National Chairman Ed Rendell, when he had a good Republican opponent; $40,000 to the Democratic National Committee; $25,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; and $4,800 — the maximum — to Rep. Ed Markey, a very liberal Massachusetts Democrat, when he ran for re-election in '08."
Shearer also noted that Rauner is a supporter and close personal friend of Chicago's Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
"With one in the governor's mansion in Springfield and the other in City Hall in Chicago, they would be in control of everything in Illinois," said Shearer. "And I shudder to think of that."
There are complicated circumstances behind the drive against Rauner in the closing days of the primary.
Shearer's longtime boss Schock seriously explored a bid for governor last year, but opted to run for re-election as Rauner began spending major dollars on the race.
Moreover, the Fund for Progress and Jobs is largely bankrolled by sources normally not involved in Republican primaries: labor unions.
"So many businesses would not support us because they have to do business with Rauner," Shearer said. "But to say that the unions backing us are doing so to help the Democrats is unfair. The Operating Engineers, for example, have supported Illinois Republicans such as [Reps.] Rodney Davis, Pete Roskam, and [former Rep.] Joe Walsh."
Shearer noted that at the Engineers' Local 50, "42 percent of its members have requested Republican ballots for early voting."
Coupled with other independent anti-Rauner efforts — including one from public sector unions — the early frontrunner has lost some of the commanding lead he once held.
In the first week of February, a Chicago Tribune poll showed Rauner with 40 percent of the vote, followed by the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nominee, state Sen. Bill Brady, at 20 percent, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford at 13 percent, and Dillard at 11 percent.
In early March, however, the latest Tribune poll showed Rauner dropping to 36 percent, Dillard surging to 23 percent, Brady down to 18 percent, and Rutherford at 9 percent. The poll was conducted after a former employee filed a lawsuit alleging that Rutherford sexually harassed a male staffer, a charge that Rutherford denies.
"Republican voters overwhelmingly place a premium on fiscal conservatism in picking a candidate," concluded the Tribune survey. "And getting state government's finances in order is the message Rauner has been offering in expensive TV ads he's been airing for months."
There are other important primaries to watch in Illinois Tuesday.
Former Republican Reps. Robert Dold and Bobby Schilling, both of whom were ousted in 2012 after one term in re-districted turf, are seeking comeback bids.
And onetime Miss America Erika Harold, who is black and a tea party favorite, is challenging freshman Rep. Rodney Davis, who is white, in central Illinois' 13th Congressional District, but has raised only $122,000 to Davis' $1.3 million.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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