DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A funny thing is happening in Illinois' politics this year. Labor unions, typically big supporters of Democrats in the state, have been using a lot of their energy in the Republican primary race. That vote is tomorrow. The GOP in Illinois sees a chance to take back the governor's mansion for the first time in a decade. It's a four-way race on the Republican side, and labor unions want to make sure one candidate in particular does not make it to the general election. Amanda Vinicky from member station WUIS in Springfield reports.
AMANDA VINICKY, BYLINE: All it took for thousands of Illinois union members to mobilize en mass two years ago was an hours-long visit from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Go home! Go home!
VINICKY: Walker had been invited to the capital city by business leaders, to showcase his success rolling back public employees' collective bargaining rights. While unions rallied, it was mostly a protest of principle. There was little chance of Illinois becoming a right-to-work state, like its neighbor. But that was before Bruce Rauner decided to run for governor.
Rauner is a political novice. And he's rich, like, really rich. You wouldn't know it based on his commercials, where he brags about wearing a Timex instead of a Rolex.
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BRUCE RAUNER: This old watch cost me 18 bucks. Pretty cheap, but it gets the job done.
VINICKY: Except Rauner has spent more than $6 million of his own money so far on his campaign. Rauner, who made his fortune as a venture capitalist, appears to be once again getting a good return on his investment. Polls show Rauner has a big lead over his three opponents, any of whom, polls say, could beat Governor Pat Quinn. Quinn may be a Democrat in a blue state, but he's an unpopular one.
Voters blame him for Illinois' high unemployment rate and its financial mess. Rauner says he's got the best plan to fix that mess, by scaling back the power of government employee unions.
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RAUNER: A government union boss can sit in a room with the governor and say, hey, give me free health care, give me a juicer pension, give our gang much higher pay than in the private sector for the same job. And in return, I'll siphon back some of that money for your reelection.
VINICKY: Rauner says he's not anti-union. He's against their leaders' influence. He repeats it like a mantra on the campaign trail.
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RAUNER: The government union bosses, the government union bosses, of the government union bosses...
VINICKY: Unions - and their bosses - are on the counter attack.
KRISTINE MAYLE: We can't have Illinois become a right-to-work state. That would - oh. It's like blasphemy. So I think people will fight as hard as they can to keep him out.
VINICKY: Kristine Mayle is a middle school special education teacher, on leave to work for the Chicago Teachers' Union. She rolls her eyes at the mere mention of Rauner.
MAYLE: He's a billionaire, and he doesn't have our interests in mind. He has his interests in mind.
VINICKY: In hopes of fending off any possibility of a Governor Bruce Rauner, unions have swarmed to one of his opponents, Senator Kirk Dillard. It's rare for unions to heavily back a Republican, but in a last-ditch effort, they've given Dillard's campaign millions. They've also aired commercials designed to frame Rauner as an icon of corporate greed.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Trust Bruce Rauner to be governor? His company's nursing homes made over a billion dollars, while seniors paid the ultimate price.
VINICKY: If Rauner does win the Republican nomination, and is matched with Governor Quinn in the general election, look for big labor to ramp up those efforts. Unions aren't happy with Quinn, either, not since, in an attempt to tackle Illinois' soaring pension debt, he signed a law that reduces state employees' retirement benefits.
But if they're forced to choose between Rauner and Quinn, it's likely they'll go with the devil they know. Still, Rauner has allies of his own, and he says he'll spend whatever it takes to win. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Vinicky, in Springfield, Illinois. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.