After months of owning the airwaves and raising millions more than his three GOP opponents in the campaign for Illinois governor, Bruce Rauner's biggest test in the Republican primary may come not from his rivals but from the well-funded and politically powerful labor unions that traditionally side with Democrats.
Officials from several unions said they are close to launching coordinated attacks against the wealthy businessman, who has made standing up to "union bosses" a theme of his campaign and his prolific advertising.
Unions have gotten involved in GOP primaries before, contributing to and endorsing candidates often as a way to hedge their bets. An aggressive campaign against a candidate is less typical, though it comes at a time when a governor could hit unions hard on issues such as the minimum wage and further pension reform.
Union leaders say Rauner is markedly anti-labor compared to the other GOP candidates, state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard and Treasurer Dan Rutherford, and knocking him out in the March primary would eliminate an early and serious threat in a year in which much is at stake for working families.
"As vigorously and vehemently as (Rauner) has come out against labor, we would be remiss if we just sat back," said Jim Reed, director of government relations for the Illinois Education Association, a major teachers union.
A simultaneous effort is being orchestrated by a longtime Republican operative who said a Rauner nomination could be "a disaster" for the GOP in the general election. It's expected to be funded by trade unions as well as other donors, under the name the Republican Fund for Progress and Jobs.
While Brady, Dillard and Rutherford have lagged behind Rauner in fundraising, organized labor has the ability to compete with him financially -- buying television advertising and paying for direct mail, telephone calls and other initiatives. In the 2010 election, private and public-employee unions combined to spend nearly $29 million on Illinois elections, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. They also bring an army of members and a well-tuned system for deploying them.
The attacks come with some risk, however, because they could solidify in the minds of conservative voters -- those most likely to vote in a Republican primary -- that Rauner is the candidate most likely to take on labor. GOP strategist Chris Robling noted Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's actions to weaken unions made him a conservative hero.
"It could be a badge of honor in a post-Scott Walker Republican primary," Robling said. "If I was on Rauner's team I'd be putting together ads to brag about it."
Rauner already has made it an issue as part of his campaign, trying to portray his three opponents as part of the Springfield establishment and noting all three have accepted campaign contributions from unions. He said the anticipated campaign against him is a sign that labor unions are scared of his policies.
"We've been expecting this for months. We're totally ready for it," Rauner said. "And whatever mud they sling, you know what? Our message, my work ethic is resonating with voters and ... we're going to win this race no matter how much money they spend on us or how much mud they sling."
Dillard, who was endorsed by the Illinois Education Association in the 2010 primary and is seeking their endorsement again this year, said he believes having the support of the teachers union shows he understands working families and education and can work with people in both parties.
Those backing the anti-Rauner campaigns say their public campaigns will focus on issues other than his positions on labor. Among them are likely to be Rauner's friendship with Chicago Mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and the money Rauner and his wife have contributed to Emanuel and other Democrats. Rauner has worked with Emanuel on education issues, and they have vacationed together.
Ed Maher, spokesman for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, said the content will be so "disturbing" to GOP primary voters it won't necessarily matter who's helping spread it.
"If you're seeing pictures of Rahm and Bruce with their arms around each other on a ski mountain, you don't really care where it comes from," Maher said.
Steve Shearer, the former chief of staff to Republican U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock and a veteran of dozens of GOP campaigns, said he formed the committee for that exact reason. He said GOP voters deserve to know more than what they see in Rauner's commercials. And he said he's afraid if Rauner is the nominee, it will drag down the party's ticket in November.
"I'm stepping up for the Republican party," Shearer said.
Maher said about 49 percent of the engineer union's roughly 16,000 Illinois members pulled Republican ballots in the 2010 primary, so the organization has a duty to get involved.
Rauner's campaign notes that the overwhelming majority of his campaign contributions have gone to Republicans.
Rauner has hit a nerve with labor in part because he believes pensions should be replaced with 401(k)-style retirement funds and has said he wants to cut the minimum wage. Though he later backtracked on the wage issues, assurances rang hollow with unions, who are hoping to see a push by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn to raise the minimum wage be successful this year.
Quinn is running for re-election and likely to face the winner of the GOP primary.