Sensing an embarrassing re-election loss after President Donald Trump’s 2016 election and a narrow primary victory in March, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner spent months last spring and summer actively seeking out a candidate to replace him on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Rauner, speaking Thursday to ABC-7 Chicago, acknowledged speaking to two men and two women about replacing him atop the 2018 GOP ticket in the race against Democrat J.B. Pritzker, but did not disclose by name whom he contacted.
Former Republican state Sen. Karen McConnaughay of St. Charles acknowledged to the Tribune that she was recruited by Rauner in mid-April, about a month after he defeated GOP primary challenger state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton by just 3 percentage points.
Sources said Rauner’s recruitment effort also included Todd Ricketts, a member of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs who is now finance chairman of the Republican National Committee; and Erika Harold, an Urbana attorney who at the time was the GOP nominee for attorney general. She ultimately lost to Democratic state Sen. Kwame Raoul. A source close to Harold said Rauner contacted her about replacing him on the ticket in August, mere months before the general election.
Efforts to reach Ricketts and Harold were unsuccessful.
The sources asked not to be identified in order not to jeopardize their positions in state Republican Party circles.
News that Rauner actively sought a replacement raises questions about the sincerity of his re-election effort, and adds to the consternation surrounding the state GOP.
The one-term governor used his personal wealth to rebuild and subsidize the Illinois Republican Party and GOP legislative campaign organizations, only to see Pritzker defeat him by nearly 16 percentage points as Democrats swept all statewide offices and expanded their legislative majorities.
Rauner created turmoil among Republicans by signing legislation expanding abortion, immigrant and transgender rights, alienating core social conservatives in the party’s base, many of whom then backed Ives in the primary.
Of his effort to replace himself on the ticket, Rauner told the TV station: “I said, ‘I’ll step aside. I’ll give you huge financial resources. You run for governor. I’ll support you. You have as good or better chance to get elected than me.’ All four of ’em said, ‘No. Too tough. Too unlikely. Too difficult.’ ”
Rauner’s effort to remove himself from the top of the ticket — after injecting $50 million of his own money into the contest — would have created myriad problems for whoever took up the challenge, and potentially would have exacerbated the split within the GOP.
McConnaughay, who retired from the legislature in September, said Rauner’s effort to remove himself from the ticket was “indicative of how he governed” and how he repeatedly sought to avoid blame for failures.
“He tried to take himself out the same way he came in. He never learned the job,” McConnaughay said.
“He really came into office with this belief that he had some sort of mandate to strong-arm his agenda through. But he never understood the process. He didn’t try to understand the process. He didn’t think he needed to understand the process,” she said. “As a result, he demonstrated a lack of respect for the process.”
Rauner could not automatically dictate a replacement for himself on the ballot. Replacing candidates on the ballot requires approval of the Republican State Central Committee, which was already facing divisions over Rauner’s power.
Rauner told the TV station that when President Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, but lost Illinois by 17 percentage points, that “changed the dynamic from good chance of re-election to very, very difficult chance for re-election.”
“I would say it’s a contributing factor,” Rauner said of the Trump effect on his November loss. “I personally believe that if (Democratic) Sen. (Hillary) Clinton had won the White House, I think the odds of us of winning re-election would have been dramatically higher.”
Trump’s victory created political difficulties for Rauner. He spent most of his first term attempting to distance himself from the controversial president and refused to use his name in public. Later, he embraced Vice President Mike Pence, the former governor of Indiana. In late October, Rauner attended a Trump rally in southern Illinois, an area favorable to the president, but departed early without speaking to the president or getting a shoutout on stage.
Ironically, Rauner’s remarks about Trump came as his successor, Pritzker, was in Washington with a group of new governors invited to the White House. He sat two seats to the right of a president he derided during the campaign as “a racist and a bigot and a xenophobe.”
Trump said of the new governors: “Most of them have become stars, if not all.”
“Because you won,” Trump said. “Winning is a wonderful thing.”
Pritzker brought up his founding of tech incubator 1871 in Chicago in introducing himself to Trump and the roundtable of governors-elect.
“And as I’ve been speaking with your daughter, I’ve also been a national advocate for early childhood education,” Pritzker said, referring to Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
Back in Chicago on Thursday evening, Pritzker said he focused on the state’s construction needs, and that he joined Michigan’s incoming governor in talking about the danger of Asian carp.
“I think it’s important that I work with the administration and with our federal officials, because there really is so much that we need to get done here in the state,” Pritzker said. “The federal government can be involved in that.”
Trump “seemed to be in a good mood, and he was welcoming of all the governors that were there,” Pritzker said.