SPRINGFIELD – Conservatives furious about Gov. Bruce Rauner’s expansion of taxpayer-funded abortion in Illinois are threatening to put up a challenger against the first-term governor in next spring’s Republican primary.
The new House Republican floor leader, Rep. Peter Breen of Lombard, called a primary “inevitable” after Rauner agreed Thursday to enhanced medical coverage for abortion, reversing the position he articulated months earlier.
“This guy is done,” Breen said Friday. “No matter that he writes big checks.”
But some experts suggest such a revolt won’t make much of a dent given Rauner’s power of incumbency – and his pocketbook. He has $70 million in the bank and easy access to millions more.
“It’s the type of issue that galvanizes a segment of the population,” Loyola University political scientist John Frendreis said of the abortion question. “I’m just not sure they could mount a successful insurgency against him. He is the major donor for the entire array of candidates running for the state Legislature next year.”
Frendreis said party faithful will look beyond 2018, to 2020 – control of the next legislative remap. He predicts they’ll conclude they have a better chance of retaining the governor’s office with Rauner than wresting control of the House or Senate from powerhouse Democrats.
Breen, who didn’t immediately mention any potential challengers, likened conservative discontent over Rauner to the five stages of grief. He said loyalists ought to move through denial, anger and the others, and then quickly reach the final stage of acceptance by finding someone new.
Rauner has had a rough summer. He lost a two-year budget battle with Madigan in July when the Democratic-controlled General Assembly shelved a gubernatorial veto of a multibillion-dollar income tax increase and adopted the state’s first budget in two years.
Campaign spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski issued a statement calling Republicans “the party of reform in Illinois.” She said voters know Rauner “is leading the effort to overcome Mike Madigan’s political machine and deliver more jobs, better results for taxpayers and term limits.”
Breen isn’t so sure.
“By signing this bill, he thought he was taking abortion off the table, but it’s put abortion front-and-center in the minds of the base that he needs in order to win,” Breen said.
Besides having to overcome Rauner’s name recognition and money, a challenger must collect at least 5,000 valid petition signatures by Dec. 4 to get on the March 20 primary ballot.
Jim Edgar, Illinois’ Republican governor from 1991 to 1999, faced right-wing primary opposition in both of his campaigns. Edgar said voters often greeted him by voicing their disdain for his abortion stance, but added, “but you didn’t flip-flop on me.”
“I don’t see a serious challenge to Rauner in the primary,” Edgar said. “But do these [anti-abortion] people sit on their hands in the general election or hold their noses and vote for him? We’ll have to wait and see.”