Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker, both billionaire businessmen seeking their party’s nomination in Tuesday’s Illinois gubernatorial primary, are fighting insurgencies that their combined campaign spending of $127 million hasn’t been able to tamp down.
Rauner, who made his money as a venture capitalist and private equity manager, is trying to fend off a challenge from state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a hard-right Republican who is getting some help from Democrats who see her as easier to beat in a general-election matchup.
Pritzker, also a venture capitalist, whose family wealth stems from the Hyatt hotel chain, is struggling in the primary to defeat Chris Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, and Daniel Biss, a state senator. The campaign has shown that allegiance to the Illinois Democratic establishment is no guarantee of success.
The contests reflect the divide playing out on Capitol Hill and in a spate of primaries in both parties. Pragmatism, compromise with the opposition and establishment backing are pitted against demands for political purity.
The Democratic split also is evident in a fierce U.S. House primary on the southwest side of Chicago and western suburbs. Seven-term Democratic Rep. Daniel Lipinski, an antiabortion conservative who broke with his party to oppose the 2010 Affordable Care Act, is locked in a close race with liberal Marie Newman, who has the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Lipinski has warned about creating a “tea party of the left.” Newman has argued that the incumbent is out of step with the Democratic Party and more in line with President Trump.
The marquee race is for governor, with a state-record amount of spending on television ads and a familiar name.
Despite the historic allegiance between the Kennedy family and the Chicago political establishment, Chris Kennedy came out swinging against all of its top leaders, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), whom he accused of gentrifying the city through school closures in hard-hit neighborhoods. Powerful state House Speaker Mike Madigan (D) is also one of Kennedy’s targets.
“We have to decide whether we want to send a message from Illinois to the rest of the country, the rest of the world, that a democracy can be bought,” Kennedy said Saturday.
On the Republican side, Ives said she decided to run against Rauner after he signed a bill that expanded public funding of abortion in Illinois and another that restricted cooperation between state and federal immigration authorities.
She has benefited from rising disappointment with the governor within his own party, which gained momentum in the fall when the National Review named him “The Worst Republican Governor in America.”
According to Ives, Rauner is weak because he cedes control to Madigan, whose iron rule has dominated Springfield, the state capital, for three decades. Rauner campaigned on changing Springfield’s culture, starting with Madigan, and once in office, he drew a defiant line, refusing to negotiate unless deals went his way. As a result, the state did not have a formal budget for two years. Its pension debt is as high as $250 billion, according to Moody’s Investors Service, making it the largest of its kind in the nation.
The position has left Rauner in a stalemate of his own creation. “I am not in charge,” he told reporters in December, blaming Madigan, whose politics he has likened to a “mafia protection racket.” The rhetoric only ramped up as the race has tightened. During a campaign stop last week, Rauner characterized the speaker as “a unified force of bad, of evil.”
Charlie Wheeler, director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says as a former private equity manager, Rauner was “not prepared to be in a situation where he had to cut deals.”
“He can’t tell Michael Madigan what to do because they are leaders of co-equal branches of government, and I think that’s hard for him to accept,” Wheeler said.
In a campaign twist, Ives received a boost from the Democratic Governors Association, which released a television ad last week that listed all her conservative positions — antiabortion, “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, anti-immigration — after asking, “When is a conservative leader too conservative for Illinois?” The ad is seen as a way to emphasize her credentials to Republican voters. Rauner responded swiftly with an ad of his own accusing “Washington liberals” of partnering with Ives. Once again, he said Madigan was to blame.
Rauner has avoided Ives; he will not debate her in public. In a poll released last month by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, Rauner was 20 points ahead of Ives, although last week her internal polling showed a single-digit gap.
Pritzker launched his campaign as a referendum on Trump, whom he invariably linked to Rauner. That quickly changed once it became evident that, in a post-Trump world, the public might be uncomfortable with a candidate whose background happens to resemble that of both the governor and the president — a political novice and billionaire who refuses to release his full tax returns.
Through last week, Pritzker had spent $69.5 million of his own wealth in the primary alone, representing not just the largest spending in the race but also an Illinois record.
He has the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party, state labor unions and lawmakers such as U.S. Sens. Richard J. Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. His momentum slowed early this year when FBI wiretaps leaked to the Chicago Tribune revealed Pritzker negotiating with former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (D) in 2008 for a state treasurer job. Other tapes revealed Pritzker making racially insensitive comments about who might be “the least offensive” black official to fill President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich is now in federal prison serving a 14-year sentence for corruption. Pritzker has denied any wrongdoing, and he has apologized for the racial comments.
While all three Democrats share similar policy positions, they’ve wrestled over middle-class values. Biss has criticized his two opponents because they are rich. He has energized liberals, receiving endorsements from groups such as the Sierra Club and the Russian band Pussy Riot. “J.B. Pritzker is trying to buy this election because Mike Madigan told him to,” he told reporters Saturday.
Guarino is a freelance reporter and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.