CHICAGO (AP) — Sensing a real chance to put one of their own back in the governor's office, Republican primary voters picked candidates Tuesday who they hoped would put the state's finances in order, take on labor unions and chip away at Democratic dominance of the state.
The earliest voters at the polls spoke of wanting someone to shake up Springfield, reverse the state's indebtedness and keep businesses and jobs from leaving the state. Some also spoke of gearing up for a fight to install term limits that they say would do away with "career politicians" who are too cozy with special interests and unions.
Organized labor was battling back out of concern that the leading Republican candidate, multimillionaire venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, could seek to weaken unions in the same way GOP governors have in other states across the Midwest.
Rauner, who leads the four-person Republican field after spending millions on his campaign, says he would model his governorship after those of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who both significantly rolled back union power in their states in what they said were necessary steps to attract businesses and reduce costs. The political newcomer faces three longtime lawmakers for the nomination: state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford.
"Rauner is going to be a bull in a china shop; we need a bull," said Tom Sommer, a 57-year-old real estate broker from the southwest Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. "It's not going to be more of the same."
Issues such as public pension reform and high taxes "are coming to the fore and the old guard is not going to handle that," Sommer said, adding that he voted for Rauner because of his tough talk against the unions that represent public sector workers. That sentiment persists despite Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's push to right Illinois' finances by overhauling the heavily underwater public pension systems, which earned him the unions' ire.
"It is a vicious cycle. Unions vote for Democrats who look for favors from unions," Sommer said.
Rauner, Dillard and Brady spent Monday traveling the state and urging people to vote. The two senators were back at it Tuesday, greeting potential voters at Chicago-area transit stations.
Union leaders, meanwhile, sought Rauner's defeat by encouraging members to pull Republican primary ballots and cast their vote for Dillard, who has been endorsed by three of the state's largest public-employee unions.
The typically left-leaning unions spent more than $6 million on the GOP primary, both in anti-Rauner and pro-Dillard ads. Rauner has raised more than $14 million, including $6 million of his own money — more than any candidate seeking a gubernatorial nomination in state history.
In stops throughout the state Monday, Rauner warned supporters about the unions' efforts, saying Quinn's "allies" were trying to hijack the election. He also spoke of a push for legislative term limits, which he said could break the labor-Democratic alliance.
"We're going to change their world, and they know it," Rauner, of Winnetka, said during a campaign stop at an Italian deli in the southern Illinois community of Herrin.
Republicans haven't held the Illinois governor's office since 2003 when Democrat Rod Blagojevich — now in prison for corruption — took office, and Democrats have almost total control of other statewide offices as well as the Illinois House and Senate.
Some voters expressed optimism at the GOP's chances of defeating Quinn, whom Republicans see as vulnerable because of Illinois' many financial problems, including the highest unemployment rate in the Midwest.
"I think there's a good opportunity to get the gubernatorial chair this time," said Reid Reynolds. "I'd like to see a more conservative forum in Illinois across the board."
Reynolds, a retired mortgage finance executive, voted for Dillard in Dillard's hometown of Hinsdale. He said he did so because he believes Dillard would have the best shot at defeating Quinn.
In the southern Illinois city of Godfrey, voters had another reason to want to upend the state's political order, saying they felt marginalized and neglected by a political balance weighted toward Democrats and the Chicago region, the most populous part of the state.
"In the last 10 years, things have gotten really bad (in the state)," said Marty Johns, 48, an accountant from Godfrey, which is a St. Louis suburb. "Throw out all the Democrats in Chicago. All of our money goes up there while southern Illinois gets the crumbs."
Johns said he voted for Dillard with one primary goal: "I'm just trying to remove Quinn."
Quinn, who was Blagojevich's lieutenant governor and assumed the office after his boss was booted amid a corruption scandal, was facing lesser-known challenger Tio Hardiman in Tuesday's primary. Quinn, seeking his second full term, was expected to easily win the Democratic nomination.
Brady narrowly won the GOP nomination in 2010, but he lost to Quinn in the general election. But the Bloomington lawmaker said he built the support and name recognition during that bid to defeat Quinn this time around.
Rutherford, of Chenoa, has done little campaigning in recent days. He has all but conceded defeat after a former employee filed a federal lawsuit accusing Rutherford of sexually harassing him and making him do campaign work on state time. Rutherford has denied the allegations, saying they were politically motivated.
Voters also will choose between two Republicans vying to take on U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, in the fall. That primary pits dairy magnate and state Sen. Jim Oberweis, who has lost five of his six bids for public office, against political newcomer and West Point graduate Doug Truax.
Also on the ballot are primary races for the Illinois Legislature and state treasurer.
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Associated Press writers Don Babwin in Hinsdale and Jim Suhr in Godfrey contributed to this report.