CHICAGO -- The candidates for Illinois governor laid out their vastly different visions Wednesday on how to revive the state's lagging economy, as national labor unions and other outside groups with much riding on the outcome began making their presence felt and promised to keep doing so through the November election.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and wealthy Republican businessman Bruce Rauner won their primary races Tuesday, setting up what's expected to be one the hardest fought and most expensive races in the nation.
Quinn, who has made a political career as a populist and defender of the middle class, has increased taxes and pushed for raising the minimum wage. Rauner, who says the best way to help working people is to improve the business climate, wants to curtail government unions much like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did.
Republicans see President Obama's home state -- one of the Midwest's last Democratic strongholds -- as one of their top two opportunities to pick up a governorship, largely because of Illinois' massive financial problems. On Wednesday the Republican Governors Association donated $750,000 to Rauner's campaign, money intended to show the group is "all-in" to defeat Quinn.
"We definitely see it as a winnable race, and we're going to be highly involved," said RGA communications director Jon Thompson.
The Democratic Governors Association and organized labor also say a Quinn victory will be a top priority, as unions try to avoid the kinds of blows they've felt under GOP governors in places like Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. Organized labor spent millions on ads during the primary that attacked Rauner, who has called Walker and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels his role models.
"The last thing Illinois needs is a governor who looks out for the wealthiest among us while turning his back on the middle class, and we plan to hold Rauner accountable every step of the way," said Michael Murray, spokesman for the union coalition.
Quinn, who is seeking a second term, began airing his first campaign ad focused on Rauner's changing stance on minimum wage during Tuesday's primary. Quinn wants to raise Illinois' $8.25 wage to at least $10. Rauner said he'd like to lower it then later said he'd raise it under the right circumstances.
On Wednesday, Quinn held a news conference at a Chicago construction site, where he thanked union members and then drew attention to Rauner's wealth. The multimillionaire spent more than $14 million on the GOP primary, including more than $6 million of his own money.
"This is a billionaire with nine homes, nine mansions, calling for a reduction in the minimum wage," Quinn said. "He has a lot of explaining to do."
Rauner accused Quinn of "class warfare" and said he isn't anti-union or out of touch.
After spending much of the primary blasting government union "bosses" and "career politicians," his message since winning the nomination has focused more on helping working families, from a factory worker who lost his job to a single mother "who's struggling and wants a real shot at the American dream and a better life for herself and her children."
"This is the future of our state on the line. We are all here because we love our state, we care deeply about our families," Rauner said following a GOP event Wednesday. "(Quinn) is trying to divide high-income folks from low-income folks. Division doesn't help anything."
Rauner, who told the Chicago Sun-Times he is part of "the .01 percent" in terms of wealth, doesn't apologize for his fortune, noting he earned it through hard work — not an inheritance — and that he and his wife have donated millions to causes such as education and the American Red Cross.
Republicans see Quinn as vulnerable because of the state's budget problems, a 67 percent income tax hike he pushed for and signed, and the Midwest's highest unemployment. Rauner frequently calls him "the worst governor in America."
Quinn served as lieutenant governor to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, later convicted of corruption. The Democratic incumbent points to the bleak situation he inherited when he took office five years ago -- when the state was in a recession and had one governor in prison and another on his way.
He says he has gotten Illinois back on track, passing a capital construction bill he says created hundreds of thousands of jobs and approving legislation to address Illinois' worst-in-the-nation state pension shortfall. He's also expected to tout the approval of legislation to allow gay marriage.
Quinn campaign strategist Bill Hyers, who recently managed Bill de Blasio's successful bid for New York mayor, said no one should underestimate Quinn, who narrowly won first full term in 2010 over then-GOP nominee state Sen. Bill Brady.
"Everyone has counted him for dead many, many times over," said Hyers. "It never has happened."