By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO, March 15 (Reuters) - Wealthy venture capitalist Bruce Rauner has used $6 million of his own money to help catapult him past three other Republican candidates in Tuesday's Illinois gubernatorial primary.
If Rauner wins, as expected, a far tougher fight looms: Unseating Governor Pat Quinn, a Democratic who, while not popular, is expected to have heavy support from unions. Democrats have held the Governor's mansion since 2003.
The challenge for Rauner will be to convince voters he is not an out-of-touch tycoon and can work well in this liberal-leaning state, where Democrats hold a supermajority in the state legislature.
Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at University of Illinois-Springfield, said he expects a "nasty and hugely expensive" general election campaign.
"As long as Rauner can say, 'I'm a successful businessman, I can bring expertise to bear, look how bad a manager Pat Quinn is' - if you frame it that way, that can be very effective," Redfield said.
Unlike some other political neophytes, Rauner, 58, has been a disciplined campaigner. He has hired experienced operatives and built a campaign on his critical assessment of the state's fiscal situation while steering clear of divisive social issues.
It appears to have paid off, with Rauner 13 points ahead of his closest primary rival, state Senator Kirk Dillard, according to the latest Chicago Tribune poll.
THE POTENTIAL MATCHUP
Quinn took office in 2009 after the impeachment of Governor Rod Blagojevich. A skilled campaigner, if not a dynamic leader, he is widely regarded as honest and well-meaning.
But with an approval rating of just 34 percent late last year, he is also considered vulnerable by many pundits.
In a Quinn matchup, Rauner is seen largely sticking to themes he has carved out in recent months, when he promised to focus "like a laser" on more jobs, lower taxes, improve schools and set term limits.
Rauner acknowledges studying the pro-business approach used by Republican governors in neighboring Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.
That tactic may prove attractive to voters in a state where unemployment, at 8.9 percent, is the third highest in the nation. Credit rating agencies knocked the state's bond ratings to the lowest levels among states in 2013 because of pension funding problems, before passage of a reform package.
Rauner, an alumnus of Dartmouth College and Harvard Business School, owns nine homes, including a penthouse on Central Park in New York City and ranches in Montana and Wyoming, according to media reports.
Rauner's wealth comes from GTCR, a private equity firm he joined in 1981. It has invested more than $10 billion in over 200 companies, with a focus on financial and information services and health care. Its work has included managing Illinois pension funds.
Rauner retired from the firm in late 2012 and launched R8 Capital Partners, which invests in Illinois companies. His reported income in 2012 was $53 million.
When he does discuss his wealth, it is often in the context of charitable giving. A backer of six new charter high schools and achievement-based teacher compensation programs, Rauner is friends with Chicago Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, another charter advocate.
At voter events, some of which have been posted on YouTube, Rauner touts his working-class roots - his grandparents were dairy farmers. A father of six, Rauner describes himself as a "proud gun owner" and Harley rider who prefers beer to Courvoisier.
But his wealth has also provided ammunition for detractors.
Opponents have criticized some of GTCR's business dealings, in particular an investment in a health company that stripped resources from nursing homes, resulting in deaths, according to legal documents. Rauner's response: The company was a failed investment.
The candidate is unapologetic about pulling strings to get his daughter into a competitive Chicago public high school - to which he later gave $250,000.
Rauner portrays his business prowess and wealth as marks of competence and political integrity.
"They can't buy me," Rauner said at one campaign appearance, criticizing others who take union money.
"Bruce Rauner isn't running for governor, he's running for emperor," scoffed Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union - offering a taste of the sort of rhetoric Rauner might face in the general election. "We'll go full tilt against him." (Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; additional reporting by Edith Honan; editing by Gunna Dickson)