Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s victory speech spurs presidential speculation

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When Gov. J.B. Pritzker claimed victory Tuesday night over a vanquished Republican Darren Bailey for a second term as Illinois governor, he also presented himself as a possible 2024 candidate for the White House if President Joe Biden opts not to seek a second term.

In a speech unsparing in its attacks on the GOP with contours that went far beyond Illinois’ parochial borders, the billionaire progressive Democrat and Hyatt Hotel heir called himself a “warrior” ready to take on former Republican President Donald Trump and Trump allies in the years ahead.

“Here we are, two years into cleaning up the wreckage of Donald Trump’s presidency, poised to watch this man announce his return to national politics within days,” Pritzker said.

“You know why? Because GOP politicians, with the exception of only a few souls, are too cowardly, too simpering to support the best interests of the nation because they’re afraid of being called insulting nicknames by a whiny bully,” Pritzker said.

The stage inside a ballroom at the Marriott Marquis in Chicago’s South Loop before hundreds of supporters is not the same as the platform of a Democratic National Convention, as was the case in 2004 in Boston when a youthful Illinois state senator delivered the keynote address that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency four years later. Pritzker’s oratorical skills also lack the dimension of Obama.

But there was little doubt Pritzker’s address was aimed at a national audience as Trump looks to announce a presidential bid as early as next week and Democrats voice concerns about a second candidacy by the 79-year-old Democratic president.

The intent of Pritzker’s address was evident when he didn’t mention the name of his opponent, Bailey, a Trump-endorsed state senator from Xenia who mounted a regional and religion-based grassroots candidacy that did little to expand the GOP beyond its base.

But Pritzker mentioned Trump twice, as well as twice using the “MAGA” term that the former Republican president has made his signature slogan for “Make America Great Again.” He also lashed out at the hold Trump has over the GOP that encourages “the spelunkers for misery (who) feed off the dark fears that people harbor in difficult times.”

“To the fake patriots and their enablers: You don’t love the United States if you’re not willing to defend it against a man who would destroy it. Donald Trump is the modern embodiment of tyranny that our founders feared the most,” Pritzker said. “So don’t lecture us about norms or typical political practices. Against a party that nominates and endorses anti-Semites and racists and anti-immigrant zealots, appeasement and complacency do not work.”

“There is no nice or easy way to say this, but until the Republican Party is ready to expel the extremists in their midst, we need to do it for them at the ballot box,” he said.

Pritzker has sought to eschew talk of personal interest in the presidency, saying he intends to serve out a second four-year term and is supporting Biden if the president seeks reelection.

But it was Pritzker’s personal wealth in helping finance Bailey as his preferred general election opponent, with more than $30 million in ads that he and the Democratic Governors Association that he helped fund, that enabled Pritzker to embark on trips that encouraged presidential speculation rather than intensely campaign across Illinois.

In June, with Bailey clearly becoming the GOP nominee, Pritzker made an East Coast swing that included stops in Massachusetts, Maine and the traditional early primary state of New Hampshire to support Democratic governor candidates.

The following month, he visited the key swing state of Florida, where he delivered the keynote address at the state Democratic Party’s Leadership Blue Gala where he lashed out at Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who won reelection Tuesday and is eyeing a GOP primary bid that could potentially challenge Trump.

“DeSantis is just Trump with a mask on. He’s trying to pass off his covert racism, homophobia and misogyny as a more reasonable form of Trump Republicanism,” Pritzker told Florida Democrats.

On Tuesday, Pritzker also attacked Ken Griffin and Richard Uihlein, two billionaire funders who have backed GOP candidates for Illinois governor, describing both men as “two of the nation’s biggest MAGA Republican billionaires.” Griffin, the Citadel investments founder, backed failed primary contender Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin with $50 million then moved himself and his firm to Miami and is now heavily backing DeSantis. Uihlein, founder of Uline office supply and packaging, gave Bailey and a Bailey-aligned political action committee $54 million to oppose Pritzker.

Griffin and Uihlein “along with their teams of political grifters, they spewed lies and innuendo, and you showed them that Illinois is a state that stands up for working families and rejects their selfish agenda,” Pritzker told supporters.

Citing his staunch support for abortion rights, Pritzker warned that “to anyone who thinks they can come into this state and try to force some right-wing MAGA war on a women’s body, you will never get an inch of Illinois.”

Still, it was clear Pritzker was focused on the national landscape in his remarks.

“When the guardrails of our democracy, the load-bearing walls of institutions of government, the freedoms that this state’s most famous son died to protect are under attack, well, then winning is not a luxury but a necessity,” he said, noting Abraham Lincoln.

After the speech, outgoing state Democratic Rep. Mike Zalewski of Riverside said Pritzker’s national focus “was reflective of the campaign that is being run right now” where statewide candidates “are to a certain extent beholden to a national mood, where it’s the threat to democracy, inflation and reproductive health.”

“As a result, you find yourself in the position of having to speak to those issues, and when you win on them, you want to make sure everybody knows the reason is because Illinois is on the right side of those issues,” he said.

That’s likely to result in more speculation about Pritzker’s potential presidential ambitions, Zalewski acknowledged, “but at the end of the day, that’s the kind of campaign the governor ran, and he was successful.”

The White House also took note of Pritzker’s victory. The Illinois governor on Tuesday night was among several leading Democrats who received congratulatory calls from Biden.

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dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

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November 9, 2022 at 06:48AM

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