Stratton, McCann Primary Wins Expose Weakness in Governor's Budget Position

OPINION

The house phone last weekend rang off the hook with robocalls from candidates in Tuesday's primary. This included one Sunday from Gov. Bruce Rauner, who was "askin'" me to vote for Bryce Benton in his Republican state Senate primary bid against two-term incumbent Sen. Sam McCann.

I needed to vote for Benton, the governor said, to prevent the race from being stolen by "Mike Madigan and the Chicago Machine."

I suspect the call I received was paid for with some small part of the $3.1 million that Liberty Principles PAC spent on this race on Benton's behalf. Benton, a state trooper from Springfield, also had raised $108,000 himself, though $50,000 of it came from Rauner. Ultimately, though, McCann prevailed with a 5.4-point victory over Benton.

Obviously, this race meant a lot to Rauner, and not just for the obvious reason of punishing McCann for voting with unions on a controversial arbitration bill last summer.

Rauner needed to oust McCann to show other Republican lawmakers that it's better for them to withstand pressure from constituents and stay with him than to give in to constituents and incur his wrath.

For McCann, the pressure came from constituents in a district heavily populated with unionized state employees. But virtually every Republican in the legislature has some issue that makes him or her especially vulnerable to pressure from back home.

For example, Republicans whose districts include state universities will be in a tough spot in November if no state funding has arrived. To this point, all House and Senate Republicans have stood firm with Rauner and voted against Democrat-sponsored bills that would have brought instant relief to college campuses while compounding the state's horrid long-term fiscal trouble.

Now that they've seen that even a $3 million blitz couldn't unseat McCann for his union bill sin, will these members stay loyal to Rauner with a general election on the line? With each passing week without a budget, the situation at the universities becomes more dire and, by extension, the constituent pressure increases.

Republicans already have been burned once by Rauner, who insisted last May that they vote against the Democrats' budget bills only to then sign the bill that funded elementary and secondary education. Now every Republican on the November ballot will have to explain to constituents why he or she voted against school funding when even the governor supported it. I don't think, "The governor told me to vote that way, then changed his mind" will be an effective answer.

On a related note, Rauner may want to stop invoking all those unnamed Democrats he says would love to side with him but are too afraid of Madigan to do so. The lone Democrat who crossed over to the Rauner camp, Rep. Ken Dunkin of Chicago, was routed Tuesday night by Juliana Stratton, the primary challenger Madigan had backed. Even with $4.2 million in protection money from Rauner allies, the seven-term incumbent Dunkin was defeated by a margin of more than 2-to-1.

I can't say either Rauner or Madigan was particularly magnanimous in their post-primary statements.

Rauner's office didn't issue a direct reaction to the McCann victory when I asked for one.

"Even in a Democratic primary, the Speaker needed to call in the President of the United States to defeat one legislator who dared to show a hint of independent thinking," said Rauner spokesman Lance Trover in an emailed statement that referred to President Obama's endorsement of Stratton. "But the primary elections are over and rather than issuing partisan press releases, the Speaker needs to end his month long vacation and begin working with the Governor to enact a balanced budget alongside structural reforms that grow our economy."

Madigan issued a statement that attributed Dunkin's loss to "how he turned his back on the elderly, children and families struggling to make ends meet, his failure to follow through on promises he made, and his association with Bruce Rauner and the governor's allies."

"...(T)he gridlock that we are experiencing stems not from a difference in political parties, but from the governor's insistence that we focus on his agenda attacking middle-class families, rather than making the budget deficit his priority," Madigan said.

I'm taking it as a good sign that Rauner's statement on Wednesday, unlike the robocall I received on Sunday, didn't contain any allegation of Madigan stealing the 50th Senate District primary from Bryce Benton. Except for McCann, the Republicans have stood solid with Rauner throughout the past year as the governor engaged in a political muscle-flexing match with Speaker Madigan and state government became a shambles.

After Tuesday's results, Rauner needs to get his members some good news to deliver back home as Nov. 8 approaches.

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