Illinois plutocrat's campaign cratering: How Bruce Rauner went from frontrunner to underdog

Once tipped to win Illinois' governorship, the billionaire is faltering -- and the news just keeps getting worse

Published October 7, 2014 9:04PM (EDT)

Bruce Rauner          (Reuters/Jim Young)
Bruce Rauner (Reuters/Jim Young)

With so many Republican governors on the defensive in this year’s midterms, Illinois looked certain to be a bright spot for the GOP. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn – whom a 2012 poll found had a 25 percent approval rating – looked like an easy GOP target. Early polls showed him trailing opponent Bruce Rauner, and by August, the Republican boasted a 13-point lead.

But Rauner’s lead has evaporated, and it isn’t because Illinois voters are suddenly enamored of Quinn. The incumbent’s approval rating is still a measly 36 percent, but the more voters get to know Rauner, the less they like what they see.

As with Mitt Romney, one of Rauner’s most-touted qualifications – his background as a tremendously wealthy investor – has turned into a significant liability. The news that the billionaire belongs to a $140,000 wine club earned Rauner widespread derision, but he’s been hammered over more substantive issues, as well. Take his support – retracted as soon as it garnered negative headlines – for reducing the state’s minimum wage by one dollar per hour. Or consider his economic plan, which centers on reducing income taxes for Illinois’ wealthiest citizens while hiking sales taxes, which disproportionately hit lower-income people.

A new Chicago Sun-Times report published Tuesday won’t make matters any better for Rauner. The report examines the back-and-forth in a lawsuit over the “corporate divorce” of Rauner’s investment firm and LeapSource, a business outsourcing firm in Arizona in which Rauner’s company invested. Rauner recruited an accounting executive named Christine Kirk to run LeapSource, but the relationship soon went sour, and Rauner blamed Kirk for its failure.

Kirk filed suit against Rauner’s firm, alleging a hostile work environment and claiming that Rauner made threats against her – including a threat to “hurt you and your family” if Kirk took legal action against Rauner’s firm, GTCR.

"If you go legal on us, we’ll hurt you and your family," Kirk claims Rauner told her in a February 2001 dispute.

Kirk also contended that Rauner made threats against her through Thomas Gilman, who, like Rauner, was a member of LeapSource’s board. Rauner allegedly told Gilman that he’d “bury” Kirk and make sure that “[s]he will never get another job anywhere, ever. I will bankrupt her with legal fees.”

Rauner’s camp vociferously denied Kirk’s allegations in the Sun-Times article, noting that much of the lawsuit, including the alleged threats, were ultimately tossed out. But the revelations seem likely to refocus attention on what the Sun-Times called the “hardball tactics” Rauner employed in his business career – a reminder that a lucrative background in the private sector is as much an oppo-research gold mine as it is a political asset.

The paper’s report came the same day as the release of a new We Ask America poll showing Quinn with a 44 to 40 percent lead over Rauner, a seven-point swing toward the Democrat since its September poll showed Quinn trailing by three points, and a sharp reversal from the firm’s August poll finding Rauner up 51 to 38 percent. Recent polls from the Chicago Tribune and Rasmussen have also put Quinn in the lead.

While Quinn’s persistent unpopularity remains a problem for the incumbent, he was similarly unpopular during his 2010 run, when he trailed in nearly every single public poll – yet still managed to eke out a narrow win. Given that Quinn is running in a deep-blue state, all he may have to do at this point is convince voters that his Republican opponent an unpalatable choice. And it’s looking like that’s precisely what Rauner is becoming.

By Luke Brinker

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