Bruce Rauner spent the last year vilifying the Springfield establishment in his bid for the state's top office, and Illinois Republicans responded Tuesday, nominating the wealthy Winnetka businessman to run against Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.
With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Rauner held a 2.5 percentage point lead over Dillard in unofficial results, making a stunningly close race out of a primary contest polls suggested Rauner would win walking away. Dillard conceded the race at about 10:30 p.m.
The electoral rookie's win pits one of the wealthiest Illinoisans with vast business experience against Quinn's lifetime of populist politics in a year where middle-class issues like the minimum wage, the state's income tax and workers' retirement security all promise to be battleground issues.
"I feel like he's the only one who can turn this state around," Julie Barbarik of Gurnee said at Rauner's victory party. "He's not an insider, he's a successful businessman."
The Republican primary race for governor all night had been a two-man fight between, with Rauner holding an narrowing edge on Dillard of Hinsdale as votes poured in.
Rauner led all suburban counties, including Dillard's home of DuPage while the DuPage Republican Dillard rolled downstate.
Rauner spent the last year vilifying the Springfield establishment in his bid for the state's top office, and Dillard leaned on the late-campaign support of teachers, state workers and gun owners.
"He's got an uphill battle," state Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights said of Dillard early in the evening. Harris went to the Ashyana Banquets in Downers Grove to support Dillard. "But in the last few weeks he made a race out of it. (Rauner) had such an inundation of TV ads, it crowded everyone else out."
The next few hours should determine who will move on to meet Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in the fall.
Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford conceded almost immediately at a news conference in central Illinois, saying he'll be vindicated despite sexual harassment claims by a former employee.
"Dan Rutherford isn't going anywhere," he said.
Rauner spent more than $6 million of his own money to run a campaign that included ubiquitous TV ads promising to "shake up Springfield" and do battle with "government union bosses."
To get to November, Rauner ended a long Illinois tradition of voters pushing back against wealthy candidates with no experience with elected office. Most recently Andy McKenna of Chicago couldn't use an expensive campaign with lots of TV ads to win the nomination in 2010. Jim Oberweis and Ron Gidwitz similarly couldn't get out of the 2006 primary.
The message cut to voters' ongoing distaste with state government, which has generated a decade of headlines since the last Republican governor held office about debt, corruption and higher taxes.
The candidates have been blanketing the state with handshakes and slogans over the last week trying to make a final push in an election that'll be decided by the scant few voters who decided to show up to the polls.
"I like the fact that he's a businessman and an outsider," Tom Kivlahan, an Arlington Heights attorney, said as Rauner visited a suburban train station last week. "There's nothing wrong with being rich and successful. My only question is, why would a guy like that want a job like this?"
Dillard, onetime chief of staff to former Gov. Jim Edgar, hopes to put behind him the ghosts of 2010, when he conceded primary election defeat to Brady by fewer than 200 votes.
Voters who tend to vote for Democrats in primaries took to social media today to say they voted for Dillard at the behest of teacher and state workers unions, but he'd likely need many thousands of votes like that to overcome what polls predicted was a strong Rauner lead.
Those union endorsements have led Rauner and Brady to criticize Dillard's Republican credentials, but Dillard has pushed back with Rauner's ties to Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
"Who'd have thought a Rahm Emanuel Democrat would be running in the Republican primary?" Dillard said today. "It's buyer beware. He's untested. And I question his Republican credentials."
In the meantime, Quinn early won his primary race with the relatively unknown Tio Hardiman of Hillside and immediately attacked Rauner's wealth.
"As long as I'm Governor, I'm here to fight for the 99.99 percent," Quinn said in a statement. "Since I took the oath of office, we have rebuilt Illinois one hard step at a time, but there is more work to do."
If Quinn prevails as expected he'll like key in on the Republicans' views on the minimum wage and focus on his victories that might play well in a Democratic-leaning state, like the approval of same-sex marriage and his shepherding of a major, multiyear construction plan that was lauded by private sector unions.
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Marni Pyke contributed to this story.