Rauner still needs Trump, despite differences
This even though governor is skipping Cleveland convention
A few days before Illinois' March primary election, the state Republican Party held a fundraiser honoring Gov. Bruce Rauner in Chicago, thanking him for sticking to his principles in the budget war with Democrats and praising the man whose 2014 statewide victory gave the GOP more power here than it'd had in a long time.
Eventual presidential primary victor Donald Trump was invited to the event at the Palmer House Hilton. And he was planning to be in town that day.
But Trump planned his own event a few miles away at the University of Illinois at Chicago that was packed with supporters and protesters and, amid security concerns, canceled at the last minute in a move that made international news.
Now, as Trump's coronation as the Republican nominee is set for this week in Cleveland, the two recent Illinois victors will miss each other again. Rauner is skipping the Republican National Convention in favor of events here at home.
The election, though, remains critical for the governor even though his name isn't on the November ballot, as Republicans try to put a dent in Democrats' domination at the state Capitol in Springfield. With Trump at the top of the ticket, how the GOP fares in Statehouse races could color the remainder of Rauner's term by determining how much of his agenda he can accomplish.
The governor said as much in a recent downstate tour.
"If the speaker and his supermajority get more power, reforms and less tax burden and balanced budget are going to be much harder to achieve," Rauner told a TV reporter, referring to Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. "If we can have a legislature where both parties have a voice relatively more equal than completely one-sided, we have a chance to grow the economy more, protect taxpayers more, get term limits and redistricting reform done."
That the Illinois GOP's de facto leader is skipping the biggest event of the election season has raised eyebrows among some Republicans, but state party Chairman Tim Schneider of Bartlett said it won't matter to voters.
"It matters that he stays in Illinois," Schneider said.
Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in the Illinois House and Senate, meaning they could run over Rauner with policies they wanted if they stuck together.
They largely haven't, and the votes of a few suburban Democrats have managed to preserve some of Rauner's biggest vetoes.
Illinois House Republicans' goal is to pick up three or four seats in November, Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs said. That would make Rauner's vetoes more certain and perhaps set up the GOP to win a majority in future elections.
If Democrats gain seats -- adding to already historic majorities -- Rauner's agenda might seem doomed for now.
"It is strictly a numbers game in Springfield right now," Durkin said. "And there's no room, no margin, for error."
Durkin is one of the state's highest-ranking Republicans who will attend the Cleveland convention this week in order to make contacts while looking ahead to the Nov. 8 election. He wouldn't reveal where Republicans' top targeted races are in Illinois, but from party advertising it's clear the GOP will push to win several suburban seats and a handful in deep southern Illinois.
Rauner is playing a part in those races already, last month giving $2.5 million to Liberty Principles PAC, a committee that's working to elect Statehouse Republicans via TV ads and several mailers designed to look like newspapers.
Picking up seats will be a challenge for Republicans. The political map drawn by Madigan's Democrats has so far worked well to send lots of Democrats to Springfield. Illinois tends to lean more Democratic in presidential-year elections, and Trump's controversial presence at the top of the ballot worries some officials that the trend might be magnified in 2016.
But the Springfield budget war could have voters picking sides and turning November into a referendum on both the case for new taxes to cinch up the state's massive budget deficit and Rauner's push for pro-business policies like a property tax freeze.
Asked what he'll be doing during the convention, Rauner said, "I will be traveling the state of Illinois, meeting with community leaders, business leaders and some legislators and signing some of the legislation that got passed this spring."
What did he think of Trump's vice president pick? Would Rauner vote for Trump?
Rauner laughed and called a reporter "persistent."
"I'm not commenting on the presidential race anymore," he said.