CHICAGO — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner insists he is “100 percent” focused on the November general election, and not worried about the conservative challenger trying to unseat him on Tuesday.
His actions, however, seem to suggest otherwise.
His campaign has increased TV ad spending in Chicago. But the biggest signal that the Illinois Republican primary might be closer than anyone expected came when Rauner vetoed a major piece of gun reform legislation Tuesday that members of his own party joined in sending to his desk.
Rauner – who’s been repeatedly hit by the right for being too liberal on social issues — had more than a month to consider the bill, but chose to use his veto power one week before the election. And he announced his veto intention on a conservative radio show popular in Republican-heavy downstate Illinois.
In this solidly blue state, it’s a decision that’s certain to haunt Rauner should he get to the general election in what’s expected to be a Democratic wave year.
Even some in his own party say Rauner’s willingness to risk November fallout over the veto is a sign he’s concerned about Tuesday’s primary against state Rep. Jeanne Ives.
“I think it was purely a political decision by him. No doubt about it. Rauner usually takes 60 days on everything,” charged conservative Republican state Rep. David McSweeney, a longtime Rauner critic.
McSweeney accused Rauner of panicking after anecdotal reports of low early voting turnout among Republican voters.
“These turnout numbers are really worrying the Rauner people,” McSweeney said. “He’s running scared in Southern Illinois.”
On Wednesday, the governor’s campaign added $350,000 to an existing ad buy, putting the money behind Chicago-area markets, according to advertising data. To date, Rauner has spent more than $16 million on TV in the primary. Ives has spent $2.4 million on TV.
Rauner, who was considered the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the country before Ives entered the race, is polling less favorably than President Donald Trump in a state Trump lost in 2016 by nearly a million votes.
The governor has struggled to win back conservatives who abandoned him after he signed bills supporting abortion rights, enacting immigration protections and making it possible for transgender individuals to change their sex on birth certificates.
The gun legislation would have required training for those selling weapons so they knew how to properly conduct background checks, prevent theft and avoid selling weapons to straw purchasers. The bill also would have required installing security cameras inside the shops, employee fingerprinting and background checks.
Rauner called the regulations “onerous” for gun-shop owners and said the bill did too little to address underlying problems facing gun trafficking.
“We have ample proof that such narrowly focused legislative responses make for good political cover, but they do little to stop the illegal flow of guns into Illinois or prevent people from committing thousands of crimes in our state each year with illegal guns,” Rauner said in his veto address.
Still, critics insisted the gun reform veto was an attempt by Rauner to excite — or at least defuse — an angered base that could flee to Ives. Ives, a conservative from the Chicago suburbs, has taken a hardline approach on guns, saying she supports arming teachers, and even denounced Chicago students who joined a national walkout protesting gun violence in schools.
“I'm all for civic education. I'm all for youth participation,” Ives said in a statement. “I'm not for children being used as tools of political propaganda by Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Teachers' Union and Chicago Democrat politicians.”
A low-turnout primary could benefit Ives, who has attracted grassroots support for a candidacy spurred by Rauner’s signing of a bill last September expanding the public funding of abortion.
On Wednesday, Rauner said he was working on a comprehensive plan to increase security at schools. He denied his decision had anything to do with politics and was instead grounded in his longtime NRA membership.
Ives’ campaign, however, accused Rauner of taking the politically expedient route. Ives’ camp flaunted internal numbers from an automated poll that it said showed a single-digit gap between the two camps. But the campaign wouldn’t release supporting data about the survey they say was conducted by the firm Ogden & Fry.
“Obviously, he is looking at the same numbers. He knows Ives is closing on him,” said Ives campaign spokeswoman Kathleen Murphy.
The most recent public poll, released in late February, found Rauner leading Ives by 20 percentage points, 51 percent to 31 percent, with 18 percent undecided or favoring somebody else.
Even so, the Democratic Governors Association saw reason to launch an ad buy Friday slamming Ives as “too conservative” for Illinois — a move viewed by many as a calculated ploy to boost her standing among conservatives, who would be inclined to rally around her after hearing the attacks.
Rauner’s spokesman Will Allison called the ad buy a nod to Democrats’ fearing “they can’t beat Gov. Rauner in November,” and that his platform “has Democrats running scared.”
Hours later, the Rauner campaign released its own response in a TV ad that begins:
“Conservative voter alert! The same Washington liberals that support J.B. Pritzker are now helping Jeanne Ives with last-second ads.”
Murphy, the Ives campaign spokeswoman, characterized the DGA ad as attacks from the “radical left” adding that Ives wears them “as badges of honor.”
Rauner brushed off the idea that he might be sweating the GOP primary, saying his sights were set on billionaire J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic frontrunner in polls. Rauner spent a portion of his $16 million in ad money on ads attacking Pritzker during the Democratic primary.
“My focus is on defeating [state Democratic Party Chair and House Speaker Mike] Madigan and Pritzker,” Rauner told reporters Wednesday. [That’s] 100 percent is where I spend all my time and attention.”