Billionaire Ken Griffin’s decision to move his Citadel hedge fund to Florida, only days before a Tuesday Republican primary he’s heavily invested in, could become a major turning point in the future of the Illinois GOP, and especially the fate of Republican campaigns and fundraising.
Griffin’s departure from Chicago also could radically shift the balance in the battle of the billionaires that’s been waged between himself and his political nemesis, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, as each has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to affect the outcome of elections.
Pat Brady, a former state GOP chairman, acknowledged that if Griffin departs the Illinois political scene, it will create difficulties for Republicans in the short term. But, he said, it also could force the party to be less reliant on a few wealthy donors and go back to a more traditional, broad-based fundraising effort.
“We’ve got to get back to the fundamentals, and one of the fundamentals of politics is raising money. And I think there’s a whole generation, new generation of donors that Republicans haven’t tapped into that maybe don’t like the way things are going on in this state,” Brady said.
“I think probably in the long run, it’s a good development if we’re not relying on one guy, not that we wouldn’t welcome Ken Griffin’s money and are appreciative of it,” he said. “But what happens is you get lazy and that’s why I think the Democrats are in that trick bag with Gov. Pritzker. They’ve got a guy who’s going to write all the checks, and that’s not good. Parties are supposed to be bottom-up organizations. That’s how you get people out to vote.”
Griffin, who is worth $25.2 billion, according to Forbes, has spent nearly $180 million on state and local candidates and groups largely aligned with Republicans since 2002. He spent $129 million of that in just the last four years, including $50 million on his current slate of GOP primary candidates headed up by Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin’s bid for governor.
Pritzker, an entrepreneur and heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, is worth $3.6 billion, according to Forbes. He spent more than $170 million to win the governor’s office in 2018 over Griffin-backed, single-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Pritzker also has pumped millions more into Democratic campaigns and organizations.
Griffin’s stunning timing — so close to primary day — of Citadel’s move to Miami suggests he could be ceding not only the electoral outcome of his slated candidates but also his billionaire battle to Pritzker. An Irvin loss would represent a spectacular political flameout. Griffin’s decision also points to a renewed financial emergence of a third billionaire, Richard Uihlein, the ultraconservative megadonor who founded the privately held Uline office supply company.
Uihlein is backing state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia in the GOP primary for governor and has contributed $9 million to Bailey’s campaign — Uihlein’s largest-ever personal donation to a candidate. Uihlein also has given an independent expenditure political action committee allied with Bailey nearly $8.1 million. Industry spending figures showed Griffin’s investment with Irvin paid for more than $28.5 million in TV ads since the Aurora mayor announced his candidacy in January.
But the effect of those Griffin-funded Irvin ads was offset by an onslaught of commercials that backed Bailey and attacked Irvin. That included nearly $8 million in ads run by Bailey’s campaign, $5.5 million in commercials attacking Irvin and paid for by the Bailey-affiliated independent expenditure PAC, $24.6 million in ads from Pritzker, including many that attacked Irvin, and $16.1 million in ads from the Pritzker-supported Democratic Governors Association.
Pritzker and the Democrats think Bailey will be easier to defeat in the general election in November so their ads criticized Irvin and offered backhanded support for Bailey with the GOP base by calling the Downstate senator “too conservative” for Illinois.
The effect of the Uihlein-Pritzker tag team might have been too much to overcome, said one person knowledgeable about the Aurora mayor’s campaign who was not authorized to speak publicly. In addition, the person said, if Irvin wins the nomination following a bruising primary, it could cost Griffin another $100 million to try to repair the damage and keep Irvin competitive with Pritzker.
Now, the question becomes, if Bailey wins the Republican nomination to face Pritzker in November, how much money would Uihlein give the Downstate farmer and state senator to counter the incumbent’s self-funding? Uihlein did not respond to a request for comment.
Griffin aides also did not respond to questions about his future involvement in funding Republican candidates and causes in Illinois. But if Griffin gives up funding politicians, one prominent Illinois Republican said, “It’s going to be tough” for fundraising in the future.
“I think it’s gonna be more difficult to make the case to Ken Griffin that Illinois is a good place to invest in for politics when he’s leaving because it’s a bad state for his business,” said the Republican, who asked not to be identified, to not jeopardize his relationship with Griffin. “We’ve all wondered whether or not Ken Griffin’s going to just toss his hands up and say, ‘I’ve tried and now I’m going to move on to better, greener pastures.’”
But Ronald Gidwitz, a major Republican fundraiser, including for former President Donald Trump, said it is premature to write off future support from Griffin for Illinois Republicans. He noted Griffin has contributed $40 million to groups involved in congressional races across the country.
“Just because he’s relocating to Florida, doesn’t mean that he won’t have an interest in certain candidates in Illinois or in Chicago,” said Gidwitz, who was Trump’s ambassador to Belgium. “But in the future, it seems to me that if we’ve got candidates that deserve support, he’ll give it.”
Gidwitz called Griffin’s departure a “tragic loss” for Chicago because of his leadership and philanthropy.
The money from Griffin, Pritzker and Uihlein means Illinois will be holding its second consecutive $100 million governor primary election, even though only the Republican race is contested. Nearly half that money is coming from Democrats trying to help Bailey.
Four years ago, a combined $124.5 million was spent as Rauner narrowly won renomination against former state Rep. Jeanne Ives, while Pritzker won a six-way battle for the Democratic nomination. Pritzker spent $68 million and Rauner spent $37 million, according to campaign records assembled by Kent Redfield, a campaign finance expert and a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
This time around, television and radio ad spending from the start of 2022 through Tuesday’s primaries show $90.4 million has been spent as six men compete for the Republican primary nomination, according to industry records. Pritzker, facing nominal opposition, and the Democratic Governors Association have spent at least $40.7 million on TV ads that are largely trying to influence the GOP outcome.
At least another $30 million has been spent on social media advertising, such as YouTube and Facebook, based on routine campaign spending practices, with even millions more spent on mailings to voters.
Only a dozen years ago, with competitive primary races for governor in both parties, total spending was $25 million, according to Redfield’s research.
In addition to the billionaires’ spending, other factors included that the primary was moved from March to June, which provides more time for spending, and the Democratic involvement in the GOP primary, Redfield said.
For this primary, industry records from the first of the year show, nearly $59 million was spent on TV ads in the governor’s race on Chicago broadcast and cable stations. The spending was led by Pritzker’s $15.1 million, Irvin’s $15 million and the DGA’s $7.45 million.
But the spending has been so pervasive that even in Rockford, the nation’s 139th-largest media market, nearly $8 million was spent on ads, led by $2.8 million by Irvin, $1.9 million by Pritzker and $1.75 million by the DGA.
Redfield said the increased spending represents the shift from what had been a patronage-led, party-organized effort to “get the faithful to the polls” to a more technology-driven, product-selling-style model in which “you can substitute capital for labor” to get people to vote.
With a disparity of wealth, Redfield said he expected a few wealthy individuals to continue to be the basis for political fundraising in the future, regardless of Griffin’s departure.
“You’ve got a huge concentration of wealth and wealth disparities and we know they’re becoming intensified,” Redfield said. “I don’t know whose line it was but essentially, everybody’s got to have a hobby. Rich people can take up all kinds of things, but one of them they take up is politics.”
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June 26, 2022 at 05:32AM