ILLINOIS (WCIA) -- As the state prepares for next month's transition at the Governor's Mansion and in the executive wing of its government, many of Governor Bruce Rauner's former supporters are starting to speak more freely about why they think he lost his re-election bid by such a large margin.
The first-term Republican was shellacked in November when billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker bested him at the ballot box. One of Rauner's closest allies in the business community said the incumbent's style of grudge match politics left too many openings vulnerable to Pritzker's full-throated attacks.
"Rauner turning his back on the entire organized labor community hurt. There is no doubt about it," said Greg Baise, the recently retired head of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association after 27 years at its helm.
"Illinois has a deep strain of trade unionism that goes back throughout the entire state, not just in the Chicagoland area. You need to understand that," Baise opined, though at times, the political positions supported by members of his own group were directly opposed by organized labor.
"Many in the labor movement are Republican," Baise said. "They have conservative values on social issues. They are pro-gun. So many of those folks naturally vote Republican. You cannot turn your back on them and you can’t say I’m going to attack the core values that you as somebody in organized labor wants to reflect."
Where Rauner underperformed with labor in 2018, President Donald Trump thrived in 2016. Yet Baise saw the Trump factor as yet another liability for Republicans in the midterm elections.
"I think this is a low point for Republicans," he said on Capitol Connection in a show that aired on Sunday. "I think you have a combination of the fact that President Trump has not [been] and is not very popular in the state. Illinois has not elected or voted for a Republican since 1988 when George Bush ran for president his first time."
Many top Republican operatives describe Baise as a public figurehead who doubles as a private conduit to some of the deepest donor pools in Illinois politics.
"To be blunt about it, I think the Republicans [and the] business community in Illinois still need some help in leadership and facing the challenges they’re going to face," Baise said.
"As a politician in Illinois, to win, you have got to put these collations together to be able to get enough people to vote, because Democrats start out with a natural advantage in this state.
Baise, who describes himself as a Republican activist, serves as the Chairman for the Economic Freedom Alliance, a dark money super PAC that collected more than $5.3 million from the Illinois Manufacturers' Association down the stretch leading up to November's election. Much of that money was used to blunt attacks against Rauner from 'Conservative Party' candidate Sam McCann, a former Republican state senator who left his party to prevent Rauner from winning a second term.
"We wanted to make sure that the voters of the state understood who Sam McCann is and was and his viewpoints on things," Baise said in response to a question about the dark money group's late activities supporting Rauner's candidacy.
"Sam McCann was doing the bidding of those in Chicago and organized labor activities wanted to see done," he said. "It’s part of the game. They wanted to beat Rauner."
During the campaign, McCann bristled at that notion, and publicly denied he was helping the cause of House Speaker Michael Madigan even as his campaign was used to distribute mailers attacking House Republicans facing closely contested races.
If Rauner was too firmly opposed to organized labor in Baise's estimation, and McCann was too closely aligned with them, then what flavor of conservative might business groups favor in a 2022 race?
"I have not talked to Todd Ricketts about his future and what he thinks of that," Baise said, whose group has been linked to a surge in money reportedly from Ricketts or his family.
Ricketts is currently the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and was recently spotted in an entourage with Rauner attending a downstate campaign event headlined by President Trump for Republican Congressman Mike Bost in Murphysboro.
Baise described Ricketts as "a strong Republican" and called his family, which owns the Chicago Cubs, a "major economic influence in this state." His brother Pete Ricketts is the Governor of Nebraska.
"So the idea that he and members of his family might be interested in the future of the Republican Party in Illinois should be of no surprise to anyone," Baise said, before defending the controversial Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, which allowed for unlimited contributions to political action committees that do not coordinate directly with candidates or their campaigns.
"The Economic Freedom Alliance, like other groups like that, does not disclose its donors, nor does it have to," Baise said.
"In this country, the allowance for you, me or Todd Ricketts, or anyone else to be able to make the point that they might wish to make should not be inhibited by what some law or regulation made upstairs in this building is passed willy-nilly across the country. What is important is that your right, my right, our ability to do this, to speak freely about particular issues, is the most important one that needs to be protected. Citizen’s United did that."
Baise would not indicate nor rule out whether or not he or groups close to him might back a more conservative candidate like Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton), though he said "we would and have supported pro-business candidates" in the past.
Ives has attacked Rauner and former Republican Governor Jim Edgar for their positions on a bill that expanded protections and funding for abortion procedures in Illinois. Baise suggested a pro-life litmus test for gubernatorial candidates may not be good for the party, but declined to weigh in on the issue itself.
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