It was a closer race than expected for venture capitalist Bruce Rauner.
Rauner commanded 40 percent of the vote Tuesday night, according to projections by the Associated Press, to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination over challengers Bill Brady, Kirk Dillard and Dan Rutherford and face Gov. Pat Quinn in November.
“We started off over a year ago, nobody knew who we were, nobody gave us a chance,” Rauner said Tuesday night. “But you know what, we worked our tails off because we love this state and we want to go to work for you.”
Dillard followed closely behind all night, ending with 37 percent of the vote. Rutherford conceded 15 minutes after polls closed at 7 p.m.
"It was another very, very, very close election," Dillard said.
Brady conceded around 9:30 p.m. The projected winner wasn't called until after 10 p.m., later than Rauner's supporters expected.
"We were all expecting a Rauner victory pretty early tonight," Sen. Mark Kirk said.
Rauner, a first-time candidate and moderate Republican, led much of the primary race in campaign finance and poll numbers. Along the way his opponents took jabs at his big-time money and connections, accusing him of buying the race and even comparing him to Rod Blagojevich.
They questioned the role Rauner played in his company’s ownership of nursing homes as well as his alleged ties to Stuart Levine, both of which Rauner denied. Rutherford accused him of propagating a sexual harassment claim against the state treasurer, which Rauner also denied.
While others slammed him, though, Rauner kept criticizing Quinn.
"The reason I'm running is we have a failed culture in Springfield, and it's bipartisan failure," Rauner said in a forum co-sponsored by NBC 5 Chicago and the University of Chicago, noting "I believe that Gov. Quinn will never transform our state."
Rauner has called Quinn the worst governor in America and said it will take "a lot of money to beat him." For his part, Rauner has been criticized for a clumsy "regular-guy" approach to the election, as well as his stance on issues like minimum wage, an issue that Quinn has championed.
Past polls have indicated Quinn's dwindling popularity as unpaid Illinois bills mount and pension reform chugs along.
"As long as I'm Governor, I'm here to fight for the 99.99 percent," Quinn said in a statement Tuesday. "Since I took the oath of office, we have rebuilt Illinois one hard step at a time, but there is more work to do. Together we will build and protect the middle class and keep Illinois moving forward."
As one of the country’s most solidly blue states, Illinois wasn't supposed to be a battleground, but it's generally agreed upon that a tough race is ahead.
“Can [Quinn] win re-election? Yeah. He’s not a dead man walking,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report. “But he’s going to have to run a really strong race.”
His attempts to rein in the country’s worst pension deficit have sparked a revolt by public-employees unions, and an income-tax hike did little to help. Quinn started the year with about $4.5 million in his campaign account, but Rauner can easily match him.
Former Governor Jim Thompson, who supported Sen. Dillard's bid in the primary, said the November race remains a toss-up.
"You're going to see the fight of the century," he said.