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"The Limit Is Winning The Race"

Brian Mackey/WUIS

  Illinois had long been the holdout: a state without any limits on campaign contributions. Prosecutors say former Governor Rod Blagojevich took full advantage of that freedom, as he solicited donations in exchange for favors and state jobs. His arrest spurred lawmakers into action.

A year (to the date) after Blagojevich's arrest, Illinois had a law that for the first time put caps on contributions. Though that was back in 2009, this election cycle would have been the first time the caps were in place for a race for governor. Instead, all fundraising limits were wiped away in November, when Republican candidate Bruce Rauner gave himself a $500,000 donation.

Venture capitalist Bruce Rauner does what he can to come across as an average guy. One who drinks beer, and drives a Harley. In a campaign commercial you can only have missed if you haven't turned on a TV in months -- he brags about his cheap Timex, saying: "This old watch cost me $18; pretty cheap but it gets the job done."

Bruce Rauner
Credit Amanda Vinicky/WUIS
Bruce Rauner makes a rare appearance in Springfield, at the Illinois State Fair over the summer.

  Or how about this one, in which he wears not a suit coat, but a classic Carhartt jacket: "Today are government is so broken, that businesses are leavin', and they're takin' Illinois jobs with 'em."

Notice how he sounds casual? Dropping the "g’s"?

Still, how many average guys do you know who could afford to air those commercials? All across the state. For months on end.

The exact size of Rauner's fortune is unknown, though it's safe to say a billion dollars isn't far off.

Just how much of that fortune Rauner has spent on his first run for public office is hard to say -- at any given moment he may put in another million. So far, he's spent more than $6 million dollars on his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor.

That's well above the $250,000 that triggers a lifting of the caps that would otherwise restrict the size of campaign donations -- both to Rauner, and to every other candidate for governor running in the primary, though for most of them, that hasn't been a major issue.

"It's frustrating and it's outrageous," says Senator Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, who is polling second to Rauner, and says he's had a hard time getting his message out.

"And I hope that the people of Illinois never let anybody buy the governor's residence," Dillard says. "Bruce Rauner owns nine multi-million dollar homes, he should not be allowed to buy a tenth one, a couple of blocks from the State Capitol."

Despite his frustration, Dillard says he stands by Illinois' campaign finance law as it is now, and the right it gives Rauner to funnel money into his campaign, unhindered.

"It's the responsibility of voters. Everybody has a first amendment right to do what they want," he says.

Dillard has recently been able to take to the airwaves to try and combat Rauner. This month, he began getting infusions of cash, including from anti-Rauner labor PACs. But it may well be too little, too late. Those donations are dwarfed in comparison to those from Rauner supporters (Dillard's characterization: “these are the upper, upper, upper, upper, upper, upper, upper, one-percent that have contributed to him”) with caps lifted, they too are freed from any limits. Doctors, fellow investors and uber-wealthy executives have contributed $15,000, $100,000, a half million dollars to Rauner's campaign.

In cases, a single check, wiping out months of fundraising by another Republican trying to be governor, Treasurer Dan Rutherford.

"We've got tens of thousands of individuals who have donated, and are donating to the Dan Rutherford campaign committee in the $25, $50, $100," he says. "You know we'll do a happy dance when you get a $5000 check in. And I, I believe in that."

Rutherford says Rauner's self-funding may be constitution and legal, but it throws away all that lawmakers worked hard to do in establishing campaign limits.

The experience of running in the race against -- as another candidate, Senator Bill Brady puts it, "Bruce Rauner's checkbook" -- has Brady thinking about whether the 2009 law needs to be updated. Though he's not sure how. "I think you always have to be thinking about how you can make it better for the people of Illinois, and not beneficial to some billionaire who wants to buy the office of governor," Brady says.

Brady, whose from Bloomington, says that's not a criticism of Rauner's success as a businessman .

"I don't fault him at all for being wealthy. It's the American dream," the real estate developer says. "What I do think, though, is people need to know who they're voting for. And at the end of the day they will. Money doesn't buy victory. It can buy name I.D. Values and ideas and principles buy victory."

After all, Brady says, he's been out-fundraised before and succeeded – he won the GOP nomination four years ago. Furthermore, wealthy candidates, like Republicans like Ron Gidwitz, Andy McKenna and Jim Oberweis, have previously tried to run for governor without any luck.

Still, polls show this time may well be different. Plus, Rauner has set records in campaign spending.

Despite repeated requests, Rauner's campaign refused to make him available for an interview. But when asked in a debate if he has his own limit on how much cash he'll spend, here was his response: "The limit is winning the race."

If Rauner fails to win in the primary, it will leave the Republican nominee at a cash disadvantage. The lifting of fundraising caps has applied to Gov. Pat Quinn too, even though he's facing only a nominal primary challenge. So he has been able to sit tight on all of the money he's raised unrestricted, and can use it to campaign against a Republican in the general election.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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