Billionaire Pritzker Wins Democratic Nod for Illinois Governor

  • General election race has potential to set spending record
  • Victor to run state with some of nation’s worst fiscal issues

Billionaire J.B. Pritzker won the Democratic primary for Illinois governor Tuesday after investing at least $69.5 million of his fortune to try to win a job that comes with some of the biggest fiscal challenges faced by any state.

The Hyatt hotel heir will face either Republican Governor Bruce Rauner or Illinois House Representative Jeanne Ives in the November election. Rauner was leading Ives, but only just more than a third of the vote had been counted and their race had not yet been called.

In another closely watched race, Representative Dan Lipinski was in a close battle against activist and businesswoman Marie Newman in a Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District that includes part of Chicago and southwest suburbs. The seven-term congressman, an abortion rights opponent and one of the most conservative members of his caucus, came under attack by liberal groups backing Newman.

Pritzker, 53, defeated Chris Kennedy, a son of late liberal icon Robert F. Kennedy, and state Senator Daniel Biss. With 44 percent of precincts counted, Pritzker had 44 percent, followed Biss at 27 percent and Kennedy with 25 percent.

“Tonight, we’ve taken the next step of beating Bruce Rauner and putting Illinois back on the side of working families,” Pritzker said in a statement. "I will fight today, and tomorrow, and every day of this election and every day after to get our state back on track."

Wealth an Issue

During their primary campaign, Kennedy and Biss both highlighted Pritzker’s wealth to suggest he was out of touch with average voters. That will be a more difficult tactic for Rauner, who has already put $50 million of his own money into his campaign.

Still, the brutal primary — Pritzker’s rivals called him a fraud, liar and painted him as someone trying to buy his way into office — could leave some lasting scars on the Democratic nominee and plenty of video clips for the GOP candidate to use against him.

In his advertising, Rauner’s campaign has already made use of recently released audio recordings from almost a decade ago that captured Pritzker and then-Governor Rod Blagojevich, now serving a prison sentence on corruption charges, making crass comments about several of the state’s prominent black politicians.

Pritzker has apologized for his remarks on the recording.

Democratic Ties

He and some of his family members are longtime Democratic mega donors and they have deep ties to the party nationally, including some of its biggest names.

His sister, Penny Pritzker, served as a U.S. commerce secretary in President Barack Obama’s administration. She led fundraising efforts for Obama’s first presidential bid and has a robust list of donors at her disposal, while her brother was deeply involved in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign fundraising in 2008 and 2016.

Contribution limits are waived in Illinois if any candidate gives more than $250,000 to their own bid, meaning there will be no limits to how much can be raised and spent on the governor’s race. Pritzker told Bloomberg News in a February 2017 interview that he was willing to spend from his own personal fortune “whatever it will take to run a winning campaign.”

The current record-holder is the 2010 California governor’s race, which drew the most money among non-federal, statewide contests, according to data from the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics that goes back to 2000. That contest included now-Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and former Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman, a Republican. It attracted $244 million in contributions, including about $144 million that Whitman gave to her campaign.

The winner of the Illinois election will face enormous fiscal challenges. Illinois has the worst bond rating among all U.S. states and has struggled to fix its finances amid gridlock between Rauner, who took office in January 2015, and Democratic lawmakers.

Rauner, the only Republican to currently hold statewide office in Illinois, has pushed a pro-business, anti-union agenda that he argues is needed to pull the state out of its budget crisis.

There are $9 billion of unpaid bills, chronic budget deficits and $129 billion of unfunded pension liabilities. The Illinois credit rating is only one level above junk, making its borrowing costs the highest of any U.S. state. Plus, it’s losing population, dropping to the sixth-most-populous state last year, U.S. Census data show.

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