The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The race for Illinois governor is a battle of billionaires

The wealthy Democratic governor and the state’s richest man have poured tens of millions into the contest.

Gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey (R) attends the Save America Rally in Mendon, Ill., on June 25. (Kate Munsch/Reuters)

The Republican primary for Illinois governor is raising eyebrows because a trio of billionaires are spending tens of millions of dollars to influence the outcome of Tuesday’s election — and because one of the billionaires is Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) have spent $30 million in ads attacking a moderate Republican mayor from the Chicago suburbs. Critics accuse the governor, who is running for reelection this year, of trying to ensure his general election opponent will be a rural state lawmaker who has called for kicking the city of Chicago out of the state of Illinois.

The gambit might work. Polls show state Sen. Darren Bailey’s candidacy surging, and last weekend, he picked up an endorsement from former president Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, whose campaign has been buoyed by a $50 million contribution from hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin, has seen his numbers drop.

The third billionaire in this battle, Richard Uihlein, who owns the shipping company Uline, has given $9 million to Bailey’s campaign and donated about the same amount to a political action committee organized to attack Irvin.

But it’s Pritzker’s expenditures that have sparked conversation.

Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said having the state’s most powerful Democrat get involved in Tuesday’s Republican primary is a first in the state’s election history.

“They’re clearly trying to boost Bailey because they think he’s the weaker candidate. Because if it’s between Pritzker and Irwin … that’s a much tougher fight,” Redfield said.

Once Pritzker started targeting Irvin in the spring, Bailey surged. Pritzker is expected to win against one challenger: Beverly Miles. Bailey is leading the Republicans, followed by Irvin, then Gary Rabine, former state senator Paul Schimpf, Jesse Sullivan and Max Solomon.

Both Pritzker and the DGA also are citing Friday’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade to draw a distinction between the governor and his Republican opponents, some of whom praised the ruling that stripped away the constitutional right to abortion. Yael Sheinfeld, Illinois spokeswoman for the DGA, in a statement called Pritzker “the last line of defense to protect women’s access to safe, legal reproductive care.” She added: “Voters will remember that at the ballot box.”

Pritzker, speaking at an abortion rights event last month, sought to appeal to voters beyond Chicago and its suburbs. “As you move to the outer exurbs, we’re also winning voters over because they understand the radical right isn’t what Illinois is about and it isn’t representing the women of the suburbs,” he said.

All the Republican hopefuls, except Solomon, support abortion if the pregnant person’s life is in danger. Irvin, Sullivan and Schimpf say abortion is warranted in cases of rape and incest. Rabine does not, and Bailey has not directly answered the question to date. He has only said he supports abortion if it protects the health of the pregnant person.

The governor also has sparked speculation about presidential aspirations. This month, he traveled to New Hampshire to speak at the state’s annual convention for Democrats. While on the East Coast, he campaigned for other Democratic candidates, including gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey and Maine Gov. Janet Mills, and lobbied the Democratic National Committee to host its quadrennial meeting in Chicago in 2024.

Shifting demographics within Illinois have enabled Democrats to win elections by dominating fewer counties than were required in the past, even though Republicans win more counties overall across the state. The counties that Democrats now control — Chicago and its collar counties — are among the most dense in population and the most racially and ethnically diverse. Comparably, support for Illinois Republicans now emanates from large swaths downstate, where population growth is either stagnant or shrinking.

Nothing illustrated this change more than the 2020 general election when President Biden beat Trump by 17 percentage points by carrying just 14 of the state’s 102 counties. (By comparison, Barack Obama won 46 counties in 2008.) Likewise, Pritzker handily defeated Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018 by carrying just 16 counties. Pritzker’s strength came from the northeast pocket of the state — Cook County, which includes Chicago, and four of all five collar counties — and he barely campaigned elsewhere.

‘The Republicans don’t seem to have enough voters and they don’t have enough growth,” Redfield said. “While they may have hardcore voters, their base is shrinking. Rural Illinois is not growing.”

Some areas of downstate or central Illinois are closer to St. Louis, Louisville and Nashville than they are to Chicago. Resentment has festered over decades. In a primary debate last month, Bailey, articulated that anger by calling Chicago “a crime-ridden, corrupt, dysfunctional hellhole.” In 2019, he co-sponsored a bill to declare the city the 51st state and separate it from the rest of Illinois.

On Saturday, Trump endorsed Bailey, calling him “just the man to take on and defeat one of the worst governors in America.”

The endorsement, made in a central Illinois fairground, is unlikely to win Baily many voters closer to Chicago.

Pritzker and the DGA are speaking directly to those voters, running television ads tailored for the Republican primary. One ad is simply a collage of video clips of Irvin calling Pritzker “a great friend” and praising his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “Why is he even running?” a narrator asks.

Some caution that the Democrats’ strategy isn’t foolproof. Wayne Steger, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago, said that given the unfavorable climate for Democrats, the plan could backfire.

Several factors could work against Illinois Democrats in November: Rising inflation and gas prices strike at the heart of suburbanites used to driving long distances across the Chicago region’s broad geographical map. Greater diversity in the suburbs, especially among an increasing Hispanic population that leans antiabortion and might be energized by last week’s Supreme Court decision.

“Any one of those issues could make a big difference” in the general election, Steger said. “If the national wave against liberal Democrats catches fire in Illinois, that could unify Republicans” for Bailey.

Early on in the Republican primary, Irvin appeared to the favorite. He had the backing of Griffin, the wealthiest person in Illinois, whose money was largely responsible for helping elect Rauner in 2014. The founder and CEO of Citadel, a Chicago-based hedge fund, Griffin has spent millions attacking Pritzker and his policies in recent years. He announced last week that he is moving to Florida.

But Irvin wasn’t the favorite of more conservative Illinois Republicans. Trump’s tenure helped give rise to local hard-right candidates like Jeanne Ives, a former state lawmaker from Chicago’s suburbs who narrowly lost to Rauner in 2018. She supports Bailey and on social media called Irvin “a Democrat, not a Republican.”