Democrats, unions celebrate victories in Illinois primaries

CHICAGO (FOX 32 / AP) - Illinois Democrats and their union allies celebrated victories in two expensive state legislative races Tuesday, saying the triumph of pro-labor candidates were blows to Gov. Bruce Rauner's efforts to weaken unions.

Union-backed candidate Juliana Stratton trounced Chicago Democratic state Rep. Ken Dunkin, who was targeted by his party after he aligned himself with Rauner by voting against pro-labor legislation. In central Illinois, Republican Sen. Sam McCann defeated Bryce Benton, who challenged McCann for voting with Democrats on a union bill.

"We think all of these races were a rebuke of the governor and his attempt to attack working families and to destroy unions," said Greg Kelley, executive vice president for the Service Employees International Union representing health care workers in Illinois.

Money spent on the races by candidates and groups supporting them exceeded $10 million combined - a staggering amount for state legislative primaries that were not going to alter control of the Legislature. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, recording radio and television sports endorsing Stratton.

The two contests were also closely watched because they were seen as a show of strength in the power struggle between Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan during the state's nine-month budget impasse. Rauner's desire to curb the power of unions has been a major sticking point in negotiations: The governor sees business-friendly laws as crucial to growing the state's economy; Madigan maintains that what Rauner wants is harmful to the state's working class.

"Voters in the Democratic primary election made it very clear they want representatives in the state Capitol who will stand up for middle-class families, children and the elderly, not turn their backs on them," Madigan said in a statement Wednesday.

Rauner spokesman Lance Trover took a swipe at Obama's involvement in a race to "defeat one legislator who dared to show a hint of independent thinking," and then bashed Madigan.

"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," Trover said in a statement.

The House has been off since March 3 and returns to work April 4.

Stratton also once worked for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who was one of the primary election's big, behind-the-scenes winners. After battling for years with State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, Preckwinkle urged her chief of staff Kim Foxx to run and Alvarez was crushed.

"Very great night for Preckwinkle. Probably consolidates her power base as the most influential politician in Illinois currently," said WGN's Roe Conn.

A man who's written a library full of books about local politics fears the State Capitol stalemate will last at least until this November's election.

"Politics is a blood sport in Illinois. But sooner or later they've got to realize the most important document in any government is a budget. And, without a budget, you really don't have government," said Roosevelt University Political Science Professor Paul Green.

McCann, for his part, said he's hopeful his victory will ease some anxiety from Republican colleagues who feared voting one way or another because of the potential repercussions.

"I certainly hope it loosens some of the gridlock. I certainly think the message has been sent," McCann said.

Republican Senate Leader Christine Radogno said her caucus is "by and large" supportive of what the governor is trying to do and she emphasized the need for parties to collaborate.

"Again, what I want to stress is that the state has the same problems today that it had yesterday and the day before," she said. "If we want to solve those problems we need to work together regardless of who the voters put in office."

The primaries were just the start of what's expected to be a long struggle for supremacy at the Legislature, which Democrats control with super-majorities in each chamber.

Rauner, a wealthy former venture capitalist, gives Republicans the spending power they've lacked for several election cycles, when they were at a disadvantage against Democrats. Rauner's Turnaround Illinois super PAC, designed to support Republicans, has nearly $4.6 million in the bank, and his own personal campaign fund has more than $21 million.

Republican House Leader Jim Durkin said the races Tuesday were "not a statement made against the governor."

"There' a lot of election left between now and the end of the year," he said.

Madigan, for his part, controls four campaign funds that total nearly $9 million. He made short work of his primary challenger, Jason Gonzales, and solidified his grip on a district he's had since 1971.