“Don’t you think this will be the year of the insurgent?“ Jeanne Ives said as she strolled across the lawn of the Illinois Statehouse. Synonyms for insurgent include rebel or revolutionary, agitator, renegade, freedom fighter. Ives like to think those terms describe her candidacy. The state representative from Wheaton is challenging Gov. Bruce Rauner in the March 20 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Rauner, who is self-funding his campaign, has more than $55 million in his war chest. Ives, on the other hand, has raised about $3 million.
Ives sees herself as leading a conservative insurrection against the governor.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she uses military terms to describe this political fight. Ives was an Army officer and is a 1987 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“The reason I left the Army is because I just couldn’t bear the idea of being deployed and being apart from my children. I know some people can do it, but I just couldn’t do it,” she said.
So far, two of her five children have marched in her footsteps pursuing military careers.
“Jeanne Ives is a West Pointer. She doesn’t lie, cheat or steal. And as far I’m concerned, Bruce Rauner has done all of those things during his time as governor,” said Art Ellingson, an Arlington Heights pastor who leads one of Illinois’ largest Tea Party coalitions.
For many GOP social conservatives, the turning point was when Rauner signed House Bill 40, a measure providing taxpayer funding for some elective abortions.
“When he signed HB 40, the calls started coming to my house asking me to challenge him,” Ives said. “I was really upset with him before that. There was a series of really bad legislation that he signed. He failed to lead on a number of good policy issues like education, energy and corruption. He has just not been a good leader at all.”
Multiple Republican state lawmakers, Springfield Catholic Bishop Thomas Paprocki and Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich all have said Rauner promised them that he would veto the abortion funding measure.
When questioned during a joint appearance with Ives before the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, Rauner did not directly answer whether he had made such assurances.
“The governor is a liar and it is time for Illinoisans to seek new leadership,” Ives said. “The Democrats hope Bruce Rauner is the nominee because they know that they can beat him.”
Should I win?
A recent poll conducted by Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found that Rauner leads Ives by 20 points, 51 percent to 31 percent.
“People keep asking, ‘Can I win?’ I like to ask, ‘Should I win?” Ives said.
Jim Nowlan, a Republican and retired political science researcher for the University of Illinois, is dismissive of Ives’ chance.
“Bruce Rauner is an unpopular governor. I think Jeanne Ives has the potential to embarrass the governor by doing well in the primary,” he said. “I could see her getting 40 percent of the vote. But I can’t see her winning. Bruce Rauner is an incumbent and he has far more resources.”
But Fran Eaton, editor of the conservative Illinois Review website, believes Ives has the potential to more than just embarrass the governor.
“Can Jeanne win? I don’t know. But I can tell you that if Bruce Rauner is the nominee he will lose in November. Four years ago, Rauner promised he had no social agenda and social conservatives believed him. Now we know better. We know where Jeanne Ives sits on the issues.”
Ives is the first candidate for any office that the 13-year-old website has endorsed. She also is the only major Republican or Democrat Illinois gubernatorial candidate identifying as pro-life this year. There is little doubt regarding the sincerity of her position.
In 2002, Ives was 20 weeks pregnant and her physician, during an ultrasound examination, diagnosed her baby with a diaphragmatic hernia, which meant certain death shortly after birth. The doctor recommended an abortion. Instead Ives chose to bring the pregnancy to term.
“The next four months I cried every day with a kind of grief I had never experienced. Our baby boy was alive inside me, kicking and rolling, and on the day we would welcome Mark to the world, he would die in my arms. I was not only grief-stricken, I was also scared. I was terrified to face the death of my own child. But I never blamed God, and I never asked why Mark or why me. I understood more acutely than ever before the inescapable truth that suffering is part of this life, and it does not discriminate,” Ives wrote in a 2015 Chicago Tribune editorial.
Ives gave birth on April 28, 2002. Her son, Mark, lived 45 minutes outside the womb.
“He’s our angel in heaven now. He answers our prayers. I’m certain of it,” Ives said with sadness in her voice.
Even her most steadfast opponents say her position on abortion rights is sincere and not one of political convenience.
“It’s wonderful that we live in a country where women are free to make choices like she made. But Jeanne Ives seems to be arguing that government should have a role in deciding, rather than just the woman, her doctor and whoever else she chooses to consult,” said Brigid Leahy, director of public policy for Illinois Planned Parenthood Action.
“We work with many legislators on issues. Jeanne Ives is one of those who is very firm and inflexible on many of the issues we care about. She wants the government to ban abortion. She opposes the most effective types of sex education in the schools. At times, her words are strident on these issues. I’m not dismissive of her candidacy. One of the things that we learned in 2016 is not to be dismissive of any candidate.”
Seeking conservative voters
Art Ellingson, the Arlington Heights Tea Party leader, compared Ives to President Trump.
“People didn’t think Donald Trump could win either and we proved them wrong. I believe Jeanne can win.”
Ives launched her campaign Oct. 28 and last month she caught statewide attention with a controversial video advertisement.
“Thank you, Bruce Rauner, for signing legislation that lets me use the girls’ bathroom,” says a man wearing a dress.
“Thank you for making all Illinois families pay for my abortions,” said a woman wearing a pink “pussycat hat,” like those seen in anti-Trump rallies. Another man, with a bandana over his face, thanked the governor for “making Illinois a sanctuary state for illegal immigrant criminals.”
Even some of Ives’ staunchest supporters were upset with the ad.
“Some of my supporters don’t have the courage to put the truth out there. They are also not in the heart of my campaign and they do not understand what we need to do,” Ives said.
Ives’ friend, officemate and supporter State Rep. Tom Morrison, R-Palatine, was among those who objected.
“If I were the candidate, I wouldn’t have run that ad. It unnecessarily opened her up for criticism with disturbing images. She should have just discussed the underlying facts that the ad portrayed.”
Critics have called the ad homophobic and racist.
Rick Garcia, a longtime Illinois gay-rights activist and political strategist, said the advertisement “went beyond the pale.” He compared it to a Trump-type campaign move that played on voters’ prejudices.
Despite the criticism, Ives said she stands by the ad and says it is a factual representation of policy positions Rauner has taken.
In 2013, Ives voted against the measure that made same-sex marriage legal in Illinois. And she drew fire from gay-rights groups when during a Catholic Conference of Illinois radio interview she called gay couples “disordered,” adding that those couples are trying to “weasel their way into acceptability.”
Garcia called Ives’ positions “fringe even among Republican conservatives.”
But he is not writing her off as a candidate.
“Bruce Rauner is in a tough situation. He has alienated the conservative base and moderates are unhappy with him too,” Garcia said. “Jeanne Ives will be the beneficiary of those people’s disillusionment.”
“In this business, all one has is their word. And Bruce Rauner not only lied but he lied to important people. How can anyone ever trust him again?” he said.
Disillusioned with Rauner
While polling shows Rauner ahead, Garcia said Ives supporters may be more motivated to vote.
“Rauner is an unpopular governor. Ives, on the other hand, has strong support among the pro-life community and among those who voted for Donald Trump. Those people are angry and more likely to vote.”
On Feb. 8, Rauner spoke to the Sangamon County Lincoln Day dinner. In this speech to the GOP faithful, he mentioned Donald Trump, someone he usually avoids discussing.
“All of us worked hard in 2016. Even though President Trump, unfortunately, lost Illinois by over 16 points – we in Illinois picked up six seats in the General Assembly for the Republicans in 2016.”
Ives’ criticism of the speech was pointed.
“The truth is, Governor Rainer’s refusal to mention President Trump’s name is just a symptom of the larger problem,” Ives said in a news release. “Governor Rauner ran as a conservative, without understanding conservatives, which is why – to him – I am a ‘fringe’ candidate. Rauner ran as a conservative, without respecting conservative values, which is why – to him – Trump and his supporters are ‘deplorable.’
“He doesn’t understand us. He doesn’t respect us. That is why it was so easy for him to betray us. No matter what he says now that he has a real conservative challenge in this race, it is just more lies and ‘fake news’ from Governor Rauner.”
Despite her political embrace of Trump, Ives said he was her 17th choice among the 17 individuals seeking the GOP presidential nod in 2016. She said her first choice was U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
While much attention has been paid to Ives’ position on social issues, she said she is focused on addressing the state’s fiscal woes.
During the first two years of Rauner’s administration, the governor and the legislature were at loggerheads over a budget. Only a spending plan for Illinois schools passed during that period.
“If he wanted to have this showdown, why did he sign the education budget? That was always going to be the pressure point,” Ives said. “Whether or not the schools were going to have their money to open up was always going to be the pressure point. But he capitulated his first year and signed the education bill – even though he told all [Republican lawmakers] to vote against it. I was not voting for it anyway because it was unbalanced.”
Ives said the state needs to be looking at large cuts to programs and wholesale reforms if it plans to right the fiscal ship.
“I would start with Medicaid. I would seek a waiver from the federal government,” Ives said. “I’d attack eligibility. I would ensure that single, able-bodied adults have to work to receive those benefits. I would also move to make sure Medicaid is only available to those most in need.”
Ives also is calling for state-mandated consolidation of school districts. She would merge elementary school districts with high school districts. She also would merge neighboring rural school districts.
“That would save on the state side and the local property tax side. In Illinois, we can’t just do small cuts. We need to do massive reforms of the way we do business. That should have happened over time.”
Ives contends that the state’s underfunded pension system is the area in most need of reform.
“The first thing I would do is have new employees move into a 401k-style retirement plan. While it wouldn’t help us with our unfunded pension liabilities, it closes off the digging of the hole. You are signaling to bondholders, residents and businesses that you are going to stop making the problem worse.
“It is not an easy job. That’s why I’m saying it will take me two years to get a handle on the agencies and start to roll back that tax increase. We need to hyper focus on running agencies more efficiently with no cost overruns.”
Kent Redfield, a retired political science professor from the University of Illinois Springfield, said he is not writing Ives off.
“Let’s put it this way, I would be less surprised if Ives won than I was when Trump won. After 2016, I’ve figured out that my crystal ball doesn’t always work,” he said,
Redfield, who is an authority on campaign finances, said while Rauner has an 18 to 1 funding advantage, that does not always equate to victory.
“Some of the biggest spenders in congressional races are losing incumbents. When you are an incumbent, you can always raise money,” he said. “But if the voters aren’t engaged with you and if they are tired of you, it really doesn’t matter how much you spend.”
On the other hand, Ives has the potential of being buried by the governor’s spending, he said.
“Rauner is sending out mailers that are absolute falsehoods about Ives. He is saying she is [House Speaker] Mike Madigan’s best buddy. And that is nonsense. The danger she faces is if she doesn’t have enough money to answer back to these lies. If that is the case, then she will get buried by the spending.”
The accusations have struck a nerve with Ives.
“They are flat-out lies. Every Republican in the legislature and most of the Democrats know how hard I have fought Mike Madigan’s agenda. I am no fan of what he has done to this state. Bruce Rauner is telling one lie after another about me. Is it having an effect? Sure, it is. We have to be able to respond. I believe the truth will come out.”
Redfield said if Ives were to win the governorship, she would be the most conservative person to have served in that office for at least 50 years.
Redfield said it is important to weigh the enthusiasm factor behind both candidates.
“I’ve got more than 1,000 donors,” Ives said. “How many does Gov. Rauner have? Himself? His friend [billionaire] Ken Griffin? We have a millionaire here who thinks he can buy himself a seat.”
While Ives does have a diverse group of donors, the bulk of her campaign is being funded by Dick Uihlein. The Lake Forest businessman, who with his wife, Liz, owns Uline Corporation, has contributed $2.5 million to Ives’ campaign. He has supported other conservative candidates such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.
The grassroots support could weigh in Ives’ favor – if she is able to counter the negative attacks from Rauner, Redfield said.
“On Election Day, her voters may be more enthusiastic and willing to go out and vote because they want change. But enthusiasm is a hard thing to gauge,” he said.
Springfield GOP activist Liz Eilers Bron said Ives has far broader appeal than just to social conservatives.
“She is a real policy wonk. Her degree from West Point is in economics. And she really knows her stuff,” she said.
A lobbyist who has worked with Ives on legislation said, “She thoroughly reads legislation and builds spreadsheets at her kitchen table to independently verify the costs of the bills she will be voting on. That’s a level of detail that most legislators just don’t go into.”
The lobbyist asked not to be identified because it could interfere with some measures she is promoting.
State Sen Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, is enthusiastic about Ives.
“I didn’t leave Bruce Rauner. Bruce Rauner left me,” he said. “He didn’t tell me and others the truth. And once you lose trust, it is something almost impossible to regain. I trust Jeanne Ives. And don’t you think it is time Illinois has its first female governor?”
Scott Reeder is a veteran Statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.