It didn’t take long for Republican gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner to drop the word “unions” from his vocabulary.
After bashing public employee union leaders for months as corrupt bosses who buy votes in order to control Springfield, Rauner and his campaign have assiduously avoided the use of the “U-word” since his victory last Tuesday. Instead, he’s switched to a line about how “our government is run by lobbyists, for special interests, and the career politicians in both parties let it happen.”
Rauner’s campaign manager said on primary night that his boss is “pro-union.” Rauner himself insisted last week that he’s not anti-union and never has been.
The candidate’s record clearly shows otherwise however. Rauner kicked off his campaign with a widely published newspaper op-ed in which he called for legislation to allow individual counties to approve their own so-called “right to work” laws. Rauner has also repeatedly demanded that Illinois follow the lead of states like Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin, which have all passed anti-union laws.
And Rauner’s only personal and extended interaction he’s had with an Illinois labor leader went horribly wrong. Rauner reportedly marched into the office of the president of Operating Engineers Local 150 late last year to pledge to the president that if he was with Rauner, then the candidate would go all the way with him, but warned that if the president was against Rauner, the candidate would essentially work to destroy him once elected. That message didn’t exactly go over too well.
Weeks ago, some folks in the higher echelons of Rauner’s campaign assured me that their candidate believed there was an opening with unions and he would try to exploit it. But that was when Rauner enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls.
I think the expectation at the time was that at least some unions would consider a rapprochement with Rauner if he won the primary big. Better to cut a deal with an almost surefire winner than be crushed after he became governor.
But Rauner didn’t win big. His 2.8 percent winning margin fell infinitely short of almost all expectations. And that’s mainly because the unions appeared to have convinced lots of their Republican members to vote for Sen. Kirk Dillard and persuaded lots of non-Republicans to take GOP ballots.
If you look at Sangamon County, the home of the Illinois capital and lots of state workers, you’ll see stark and convincing evidence of just how effective the union push was.
In 2010 and in 2006, total Republican gubernatorial votes cast in the county were very similar, averaging just under 16.000.
This year, the county’s turnout was abysmal, with under 20 percent of registered voters participating overall. But Republican votes for governor shot way up to almost 25,000. Sen. Dillard, the union favorite, won Sangamon with about 15,000 votes, almost equal to the total GOP turnout in the previous two primaries.
Democratic votes for governor in 2010 and 2006 were both 34 percent of the total gubernatorial votes cast in Sangamon County. This year, that number fell to just 15 percent, with Republican percentages rising from 66 percent in the two previous primaries to a whopping 85 percent this year. Some of that can be attributed to the lack of interest by all Democrats everywhere due to a dearth of contested races, but most of it was related to the unions’ strong GOP ballot push.
These numbers can’t be extrapolated statewide because AFSCME is so influential in Sangamon, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that something unprecedented happened in Illinois on Tuesday. The polls and prognosticators were wrong because tens of thousands of union members and their loved ones took GOP ballots for the first time. Changing the landscape of a party primary is almost impossible, but the unions did just that.
And because they almost beat Rauner I doubt that few if any unions will be at all interested in cutting a deal with him. There could be an odd straggler that Rauner can parade as “proof” that he’s not anti-union. But the overwhelming attitude will be “We almost beat him once, so we’ll just ramp it up in the fall.”
The question then becomes how long it will take the public employee unions to forgive Quinn, who pushed hard to cut their members’ pension benefits. They simply don’t trust the man, and they truly wanted to nominate an alternative last week.
And the danger for Quinn is that the public employee unions do what they did in the primary with Dillard - wait too long to finally make a decision.