‘Millionaire’s exemption’ could make Illinois’ governor’s race the nation’s most expensive

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Illinois’ governor’s race could again be the nation’s most expensive.

Illinois’ 2018 governor’s race was the most expensive in American history. But this year’s may top it.

Since January, three billionaires have thrown $140 million into the mix – and Illinois’ primary isn’t until June. It’s a mounting second round in the state’s battle of the billionaires, with figures so eye-popping it’s easy to forget just how much money is at play.

The hundreds of millions of dollars funneling into the race are, in part, thanks to Illinois’ unique campaign finance laws that trigger a funding free-for-all once one candidate decides to self-fund. The race’s outcome could be an expensive lesson in just how far money goes in political races.

It’s also indicative of the increasingly costly price of gubernatorial races nationwide, said Dan Weiner, director of the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program.

“Governors have a huge amount of power, and we’re seeing more money flooding into those races,” Weiner said.

The highest spender so far in Illinois’ governor’s race is incumbent Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat and the billionaire heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune. Pritzker assumed his office a year before the pandemic began, and his tenure – and reelection campaign – has largely been defined by it. He donated $90 million of his own money to his campaign in January, according to state campaign finance records.

J.B. Pritzker won the governor’s mansion in Illinois in 2018 and faces a reelection campaign funded by fellow billionaires in 2022.

In June, Pritzker will face off against Democratic challenger, retired Army Maj. Beverly Miles.

Among several Republican challengers, two campaigns are being bankrolled by other Illinois billionaires.

Republican challenger Richard Irvin, mayor of the western Chicago suburb of Aurora, is backed by multibillionaire Ken Griffin, CEO of the hedge fund Citadel. Griffin is Illinois’ richest man. He gave $20 million to Irvin’s campaign in February and earlier this month gave $25 million more, a drop in the bucket for the hedge fund manager worth more than $27 billion.

A different Republican challenger, Illinois state Sen. Darren Bailey, has the backing of long-time Republican donor Richard Uihlein, founder of the shipping company Uline. Uihlein and his wife, Liz, were dubbed “the most powerful conservative couple you’ve never heard of” by the New York Times in 2018. He lands in second place on OpenSecrets’ 2022 list of top donors to outside spending groups, falling only behind Democrat George Soros in political donations, and is a known supporter of former President Donald Trump. Uihlein – who is worth about $4 billion, according to Bloomberg –  gave two meager payments of $2.5 million each to Bailey in April and May.

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Citizens United yields Illinois’ ‘millionaire’s exemption’

Under Illinois law, individuals can donate up to $6,000 a candidate per election cycle. But as soon as any candidate spends over a certain amount in personal funds on their own campaign, all candidates are freed from any contribution limits, opening the donation flood gates. (In gubernatorial campaigns, that amount is $250,000.) The rule is dubbed the "millionaire’s exemption."

It is modeled after a federal law that was struck down as unconstitutional in the 2010 landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, according to Nora Huppert, a lawyer with expertise in the exemption.

Under the federal law, contribution limits to a candidate or federal office would be lifted if an opponent had raised above a certain amount of money from individuals. The Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional due to its asymmetrical nature, calling the law a restriction on the free speech of the candidate with money behind them and the people who sought to contribute money to that candidate.

"In the wake of Citizens United, it became much easier for billionaires not just to run their own campaigns, but to spend as much money as they want to get other people elected," said Dan Weiner, director of the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program.

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In 2009, Illinois campaign finance reformers were looking for a way to make candidates less dependent on the state’s party leaders, according to Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois. The state’s Democratic Party was a notorious "machine," historically hand-picking candidates and strong-arming votes.

The party leaders weren’t fans that effort, he said.

"What they brought in instead," Gaines said of the state’s Democratic Party leaders, "was something that was supposed to help incumbents, who already have lots of advantages, from one of the only things that could unseat an incumbent – a really wealthy challenger."

So the Illinois General Assembly passed the millionaire’s exemption. Unlike the struck-down federal law, its effect is symmetrical: Limits on spending for all candidates in the same race are lifted once the exemption is triggered.

But that plan somewhat backfired when multimillionaire Bruce Rauner, a Republican, had the funds to outspend the Democratic incumbent. In 2014, Rauner spent some $65 million – about half of which came from his pockets – to oust Gov. Pat Quinn in 2014, who spent about $32 million. Rauner won the election.

The solution for Democrats? Get a bigger spender on the other side, Gaines said.

"That has created this possibility where if both parties have someone with enough money, we have kind of the wild, wild West again, where there’s virtually no regulation on the donations," Gaines said. "People weren’t thinking hard enough about what happens when you let the money flow."

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Battle of the billionaires

Illinois Democrats found a bigger spender than Rauner in Pritzker.

In 2018, the two faced off for governor in a race that cost more than $284 million, USA TODAY reported. Pritzker raised some $175.6 million – mostly his own – and Rauner raised more than $79 million. Another $29.3 million was raised by primary challengers and third-party opposition. Pritzker won the race.

One of Rauner’s key donors in 2018 was Griffin, of the hedge fund Citadel, who contributed $22.5 million.

In 2020, Griffin took a more central role in opposing Pritzker’s goals, contributing millions to beat back a ballot initiative that would have amended the state’s flat-rate income tax to make it a graduated rate structure. Griffin and Pritzker spent more than $111 million of their own money combined backing opposing sides of the so-called "fair tax," which ultimately didn’t pass.

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Uihlein, founder of Uline, supported Rauner in 2014, with $2.6 million in campaign donations, but backed his opponent, former Illinois state Rep. Jeanne Ives, in the 2018 Republican primary with $2.5 million, according to state campaign finance records.

Richard Uihlein, an Illinois-based packaging and shipping magnate, has donated to the state’s Republican candidates and given millions more to groups working to elect conservative Republicans to Congress from Mississippi to Montana.

This year’s race could be more costly. Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, predicted the race could reach $300 million or $400 million before it’s settled.

But those figures are chump change for the billionaires, Gaines suggested.

"I don’t think either Griffin or Pritzker would shy away from $100 million if that’s what it took," he said. "They have that kind of money – they wouldn’t really notice spending that."

Can money alone win elections?

Though the state’s "millionaire’s exemption" can’t be found elsewhere, big money in politics nationwide can.

"I think that, without question, this is not a phenomenon unique to Illinois," Weiner said. "We see massive amounts of money flowing into elections across the country, and those amounts have increased exponentially in recent years."

The 2020 election was the most expensive in U.S. history, with a record-shattering $14.4 billion spent in the presidential and congressional races, according to Open Secrets. Some $2.3 billion of that figure was shelled out by just 20 billionaires.

In 2018, state election costs reached new highs, as well, with more than $2.2 billion poured into the campaigns of candidates for governor, legislature and other state offices across the nation.

"Money is a huge barrier to entry in politics," Weiner said. "Money isn’t everything, but it matters; it matters less in terms of the raw question of who has the most money than it does in terms of who has enough money to compete."

Pritzker is now the only sitting billionaire governor, with a net worth of $3.6 billion, according to Forbes’ Billionaire Index. When West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice took office he was a billionaire, but his fortune has since declined, according to Forbes. At least two other billionaires served as governors: Tennessee’s Bill Haslam and Minnesota’s Mark Dayton.

There are several multimillionaire governors, like Virginia Gov. Glenn Younkin, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Nebraska Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.

More than half of the lawmakers that made up 116th Congress were millionaires, according to financial disclosures analyzed by Open Secrets in 2020.

And former President Donald Trump is a billionaire, too.

"It’s not hard to imagine the the kind of detrimental effect that (ultrarich politicians) would have on people’s perception of who can be a viable candidate for an office like that, as well as the damage that it could do to people’s perceptions of the fairness of elections," Huppert said.

History already shows big bucks don’t necessarily translate to votes at the polls.

Before Illinois’ 2018 gubernatorial race was deemed America’s most expensive, the title belonged to California’s 2010 governor’s election, in which former Hewlett Packard CEO and Republican challenger Meg Whitman dropped more than $143 million of personal funds against Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown — only to be beat by a 13-point margin.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg campaigns in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 30, 2020.

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire founder of financial information and media company Bloomberg LP, on a larger scale showed that money can only take a candidate so far. The 2020 presidential hopeful and 12th richest man in the world spent almost $1 billion on his short-lived presidential campaign, dropping out after Super Tuesday in March 2020.

"He spent a huge amount of money but got nowhere," Gaines said of Bloomberg.

Still, more often than not, a candidate’s spending correlates with their success. An Open Secrets analysis, found that about 88% of House races and 71% of Senate races were won by the top spending candidate in 2020. That’s largely been the case since at least 2000, the analysis shows.

"Unless you start to implement innovative solutions, to try to democratize the funding of campaigns, you’re likely to continue to have elections in which politicians are beholden, in many instances, to a very small group of wealthy backers – unless they have the good fortune to be able to just fund their own campaigns," Weiner said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Battle of billionaires in Illinois’ primary tests big money’s impact

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May 31, 2022 at 07:17AM

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