Opponents of gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in Illinois, are making comparisons between his situation and Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. | Max Herman/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, File
Is the Democratic Party putting its thumb on the scale for a billionaire candidate?
12/07/2017 05:06 AM EST
An inevitable candidate. Accusations of a rigged primary. Early commitments from organized labor.
The Illinois Democratic primary for governor sounds a lot like Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential primary campaign — which didn’t end up well for the party.
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Opponents of billionaire J.B. Pritzker, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in Illinois, are now using the Clinton example in an effort to level the field, warning that the party risks blowing a prime opportunity to knock off a vulnerable Republican governor by repeating the same mistakes it made in 2016.
Evoking Sen. Bernie Sanders, Pritzker’s top competitors — Chris Kennedy, the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, and state Sen. Daniel Biss, a Harvard-educated mathematician — say they’ve been elbowed out at every turn by party insiders. They say the Democratic establishment in one of the nation’s biggest blue states has greased the skids for an untested candidate, simply because he has bottomless pockets.
Illinois Democrats are so mesmerized by Pritzker’s unlimited cash pile, and so presumptuous that he will win because of it, Biss says, that few are asking the most basic question: can one wealthy businessman, Pritzker, defeat another wealthy businessman,Gov. Bruce Rauner, in a general election?
“The establishment that’s supporting Pritzker wants us to not worry about Pritzker’s electability,” in a general election, Biss said. “The challenge with inevitability is if you’re not going to have a primary election, then you’re not going to have the nominees respond to criticism.”
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There’s no denying the political benefits to Pritzker’s ability to pay his own way. A self-funder at the top of the ticket has the potential to free up millions of dollars to protect seats in the legislature. Rauner has already managed to erode Democrats’ grip on the General Assembly — and the multi-millionaire governor has threatened to snatch nine more seats from the ruling party in 2018.
There’s another reason to put a thumb on the scale for Pritzker: in 2016, long before the primary campaigns were underway, Rauner deposited $50 million into his campaign fund and billionaire donor Ken Griffin added another $20 million. When all the dust is settled, the 2018 governor’s race is expected to be one of the costliest in American history.
Pritzker’s campaign takes issue with the comparison to Clinton, and it has a point of reference: his campaign manager Anne Caprara headed Hillary Clinton’s SuperPAC in 2016.
“The idea that J.B. started out as a presupposed candidate is just wrong,” Caprara said. “The first thing I said to J.B. was that he was going to have to work hard for the nomination and that’s exactly what he’s done.”
Influential Pritzker supporters — including U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos and state Sen. Andy Manar — say the businessman is not only doing the shoe leather campaigning, he’s building an infrastructure around the state that the party has lacked for years. On top of opening and staffing offices and building name ID with paid ads, Manar said Pritzker has already demonstrated an organized campaign operation that “holds Bruce Rauner accountable” every day by calling out various administration decisions. In the meantime, Pritzker is vastly outspending his opponents.
He’s already placed at least $15 million in TV and radio ads — roughly $14.8 million more than his next closest Democratic rival. The governor’s race, projected to be the costliest in U.S. history, has already driven out one candidate, Ameya Pawar, who said he couldn’t compete with the money demands.
Rauner, who has picked up on the criticism within Democratic ranks, has sought to use the unrest to his advantage by accusing powerful state party chair and House Speaker Mike Madigan of pulling the strings.
“He has rigged his Democratic primary. He has rigged it, ladies and gentlemen. If you guys won’t report it, shame on you,” Rauner told reporters on Monday. “He has rigged the system, he controls it. It’s a Mafia protection racket.”
Kennedy accused Madigan of pressuring labor groups to back Pritzker just weeks after Pritzker entered the race. By collecting historically early endorsements of top Illinois office holders and labor unions, Pritzker was able to foster the perception that his nomination was a foregone conclusion — which, his party rivals insist, dampened fundraising efforts and enthusiasm for other Democrats.
“I think people made commitments early because they were told to, not because they chose to. That’s all the difference right there,” Kennedy told POLITICO after a recent campaign event. “I think there is an attempt to cram down democracy, where the head of the party is choosing the next governor. I think that’s the great parallel of what happened in the last [presidential] election, and it’s bad for the state. I don’t think the primary voter is going to put up with that.”
While Madigan hasn’t formally endorsed in the race, he has worked behind the scenes to clear a path for Pritzker. Party officials say Pritzker’s money isn’t the only reason — they believe the wealthy businessman has the temperament, work ethic and retail politicking skills to ultimately win over general election voters.
Bustos said no one pressured her into an endorsement. Instead, she had two main criteria before backing Pritzker: “Who’s going to be the best candidate to come out of the primary to defeat Bruce Rauner? Who has a plan and who’s paying attention to downstate Illinois?” Bustos said. “I didn’t even make a decision until we hosted a downstate Illinois forum. We invited all of the candidates in the governor’s race. Chris Kennedy did not show up.”
But Biss says there is an inevitability argument behind Pritzker that is reminiscent of the 2016 presidential primary — still a sensitive topic among Democrats. In that contest, he said, the party snuffed out the energy behind Sanders, which ultimately backfired on Clinton and factored into Donald Trump’s surprise victory.
Pritzker’s campaign is quick to provide data suggesting that he isn’t taking the primary for granted. Pritzker has already visited 46 counties; made more than 220 stops outside of Chicago’s Cook County; took part in more than 40 forums and multi-candidate events; attended dozens of festivals; marched in more than 14 parades; and visited two dozen social service agencies across the state.
Caprara said the stunning outcome of the 2016 presidential wasn’t because Clinton had a primary election cakewalk and was caught off guard by tough criticism in the general election.
“It was an eye opening experience for me … Hillary Clinton was the most battle-tested candidate in the history of the Republic. She walked into that race with people’s opinions really hardened,” Caprara told POLITICO. “I think the unique opportunity with J.B. is people don’t have hardened opinions about him. There are new people and new faces with our Democratic politics at the moment. I think people are looking at who are the next political leaders.”
Both Biss and Kennedy contend that Pritzker is vulnerable in a run against Rauner because of his ties to Madigan, a controversial figure whom they have distanced themselves from since running for governor. Yet they have their exposure on the issue: Biss, as a state representative, voted for Madigan as speaker. Last year, Biss ran a super PAC that benefited from Madigan money. For his part, the underfunded Kennedy had met with Madigan and sought his support for a governor’s bid at the outset of the campaign. At one time he was thought to have some juice with the speaker and state party chair: Kennedy got a prime speaking spot before the Illinois delegation at the Democratic National Convention last year.
Manar, whose district includes Republican-heavy counties downstate, said he offered his endorsement after seeing Pritzker interact with voters in his district. Pritzker spent hours talking to people in bars and town squares, Manar says.
“If you run a statewide campaign in one county in the state you can’t logically expect to govern the state well. I think J.B. understands that,” Manar said, referring to Chicago’s Democrat-heavy Cook County. “It’s been a tough couple of election cycles down state. … But the first thing Democrats have to do is show up and be counted. J.B.’s candidacy has renewed energy in the party structure, I think all over the state.”