Assessing the Illinois Governor's Race After a Week that Shook Things Up
The race for Illinois governor is picking up speed.
Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin jumped in on the Republican side last week. Campaigns offered snapshots of where their fundraising stands. And nominating petitions are out on the streets as volunteers and paid workers brave the cold gathering signatures to get candidates a spot on the June 28 primary ballot.
A conventional wisdom quickly emerged: Irvin might have a tough time winning the GOP primary election, but you only have to squint a little to see that there’s a possible path to victory in the fall, partly for reasons out of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s control.
Irvin shakes up what media types had viewed as a lackluster Republican field with dim prospects of defeating Pritzker, even in a year when Democrats face headwinds due to dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden and the usual downturn in turnout with no presidential race to drive the vote.
The potential of a campaign cash windfall from billionaire hedge fund mogul Ken Griffin immediately put Irvin at the forefront of the political conversation. But the Aurora mayor is untested in a statewide campaign and has a record that will be closely scrutinized by reporters and opposition researchers from both parties. In addition to being mayor, Irvin has been a prosecutor and defense attorney.
Already, it’s come out that Irvin pulled Democratic primary ballots during the last decade, providing primary opponents with a ready-made way to sow doubt about his Republican bona fides. And Irvin went from supporting Black Lives Matter in his mayoral re-election campaign a year ago to talking about how “All Lives Matter” in his three-minute introductory video.
Money is often the biggest determining factor in a campaign, but in a Republican primary where there are multiple candidates and philosophical and geographical divides, it may not take the most money --- or even a majority --- to win. There were about 820,000 votes cast in the contested 2014 GOP governor primary and about 720,000 votes in the 2018 primary.
The Illinois GOP primary electorate is divided, with voters who remain all-in on former President Trump, those who liked his policies but not his polarizing persona, and some Never-Trumpers whose party enthusiasm waned.
For Irvin, a major primary campaign challenge is to get some of the lapsed Republicans back in the fold. Just as country clubs are struggling, there also are fewer country club Republicans turning out to vote in Illinois primaries.
Collar county voters made up nearly 38% of the vote (along with 15% in suburban Cook) in 2006, compared to 44% Downstate. In 2018, the last governor’s race, the collars made up 28% of the GOP primary vote (and suburban Cook 14%) and Downstate made up nearly 53%. Those figures are from Center for Illinois Politics data adviser Scott Kennedy’s IL Election Data site.
Irvin’s path in the primary is to do well in the collar counties and hope the other candidates stay in and split the Downstate vote and the hardcore Trump vote. State Sen. Darren Bailey is trying to appeal to ultra conservatives and evangelicals, the types of voters who tend to turn out and can be reached through grassroots methods without spending millions of dollars.
“Griffin’s money tilts the scale in Irvin’s favor. But it’s all (Irvin) has so far. Much to prove,” said one veteran campaign operative who spoke freely on the condition they not be named. “The problem for Irvin would be if some of the other candidates get out and (the) Downstate (vote) isn’t split as much. Downstate is where the energy of the party is. They’re going to vote.”
It’s been difficult for a Republican to win statewide office for nearly a quarter century. Since 2000, Democrats have won more than 80% of contests for statewide offices, and have taken four of five races for governor.
Republicans who’ve won statewide during that time followed a formula of winning the swing suburbs, racking up big margins in much of Downstate and collecting at least 20% of the vote in the city of Chicago. Former governor Bruce Rauner got 20.6% in the city in 2014, for example.
Should Irvin emerge from the primary, he has a chance at hitting that city benchmark. In Chicago, the Black electorate is important and sizable, and Rauner spent campaign money wooing ministers and community activists and even deposited $1 million into a South Side credit union. The middle-class Irvin, who would be the first Illinois Republican black governor nominee, stands to connect better with Black voters (indeed, many types of voters) than Rauner, a white North Shore billionaire.
Pritzker sent a message of his own by depositing $90 million of his family fortune into his campaign fund. In some quarters, it was viewed as an overreaction to the Griffin-backed Irvin’s entry into the contest, while other observers saw the money flex as a way to reassure suddenly skittish Democrats that the governor was all-in.
In some ways, Pritzker finds himself in the same position in the 2022 governor contest that Rauner was during the 2018 campaign. Back then, Rauner had a record to defend as governor while Pritzker was new. Now Pritzker is the chief executive with a record and his challenger could be new. Rauner was outspent by a wealthier individual, much like Griffin is in position to do to Pritzker this time around. And four years ago, Rauner was deeply criticized for veterans dying after a Legionnaire’s disease outbreak at the Quincy Veterans Home. Pritzker will have to defend what an independent review called an “inefficient, reactive and chaotic” handling of the COVID-19 virus that led to 36 veterans dying at the LaSalle Veterans Home.
Unlike Rauner, who paralyzed state government during a lengthy budget standoff with Democrats, Pritzker has a more robust record of wins to point out to voters. Pritzker racked up more accomplishments during his first year in office than most Illinois governors achieve in a full term. Overall, he can point to approval of a capital construction plan, energy bill, gambling expansion and legalizing marijuana.
“J.B. is going to be able to cut ribbons throughout the state all year at new projects and he will be able to remind older voters that he was trying to save lives during the pandemic,” said another longtime Illinois political observer who spoke on the condition they not be named.
The state’s finances are stronger, thanks to an influx of federal pandemic money, and the governor is airing TV ads to let voters know.
Pritzker also signed into law a criminal justice reform act that many Democrats praised at the time. Now violent crime remains high in Chicago and Republicans are attempting to make it one of the campaign’s defining issues, especially among suburban voters.
Beyond that, Pritzker faces a lack of Democratic enthusiasm due to Biden’s first-year stumbles. And as governor, Pritzker had to make a lot of decisions about restrictions during a pandemic that’s stretched on longer than anyone imagined in March 2020. Although many of Pritzker’s COVID-19 moves scored well in polls, he also angered restaurant and business owners with closures. The governor nodded to discontent in a campaign ad in which he acknowledged that he “may not have gotten every decision right.”
We talked to a half-dozen political operatives and observers from both parties about the strengths and weaknesses of the major candidates for Illinois governor, and here’s what they said:
Lives in: Chicago
Political experience: Illinois governor (2019-present)
Fundraising: The billionaire poured $90 million of his fortune into his campaign fund on Jan. 14 on top of the $35 million he contributed in March 2021. Had $14.7 million left to start the year before his latest cash infusion after spending nearly $10 million in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Running mate: Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton of Chicago
Strengths: Ability to spend virtually unlimited sums on his campaign to air TV ads that frame himself positively, attack the Republican challenger and respond to GOP attacks. Can point to series of accomplishments. Illinois is a blue state, providing a Democratic homefield advantage.
Weaknesses: Potential lack of Democratic enthusiasm in mid-term election. Republicans could link him to President Biden’s unpopularity, and point to inflation and continued supply chain issues. Republican billionaire hedge fund CEO Ken Griffin could spend tens of millions of dollars supporting a challenger. Lost the 2020 graduated income tax referendum that he campaigned on in 2018.
Lives in: Xenia (south of Effingham)
Political experience: Illinois Senate (2021-present); Illinois House (2019-20)
Fundraising: Started the year with $707,274 after raising $500,000 and spending $794,405 in the fourth quarter. Moved money around with fellow Downstate Republican lawmakers and political action committee they started.
Running mate: Former radio talk show host Stephanie Trussell of Lisle
Strengths: Challenged Pritzker pandemic restrictions in court, which allows him to say to primary voters that he stood up to the governor. Courting evangelical voters. Could put together a strong grassroots network.
Weaknesses: Ultra conservative views could hurt him with some suburban voters, especially in a general election campaign. Opened up self to criticism after railing against government “handouts” as “socialism” while accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal pandemic funds. Multiple Downstate candidates could split the region’s vote.
Lives in: Aurora
Political experience: Aurora mayor (2017-present); Aurora City Council (2007-2017)
Fundraising: Created a campaign committee Jan. 18. Is expected to get significant backing from conservative billionaire Ken Griffin. Had about $165,000 left in his mayoral political fund.
Running mate: State Rep. Avery Bourne of Morrisonville
Strengths: May have major financial backing from Griffin, allowing him to blanket the airwaves when opponents can’t do the same. Former prosecutor has message he was tough on crime, a big issue this year. Suburban mayor status could appeal to voters in the general election. Would be first Black Republican governor nominee in Illinois, potentially cutting into Democratic margins in Chicago.
Weaknesses: Fellow Republicans could attack him for voting in Democratic primaries and for prior support of Black Lives Matter. Questions about how he will play with Downstate Republican voters.
Lives in: Bull Valley (McHenry County)
Political experience: First run for political office. Paving company owner.
Fundraising: Had $525,000 to start the year after raising $580,627 and spending $470,918 in the fourth quarter. Has put in more than $451,000 of his own money.
Running mate: Former Cook County GOP Chairman Aaron Del Mar
Strengths: Can self-fund to an extent. Pitches self as suburban business owner focused on cutting taxes. Has some support among county officials.
Weaknesses: His love of Trump (held a fundraiser featuring Donald Trump Jr.) could help in primary but hurt in general. Not well known. Has spread misinformation on COVID-19, which could hurt him in a general election.
Lives in: Waterloo (southwest of Belleville)
Political experience: State senator (2017-2021); lost Illinois attorney general bid (2014); served as U.S. Marine for two decades.
Fundraising: Had less than $81,000 to start the year after raising $61,836 and spending $54,593 in the fourth quarter.
Running mate: McHenry County Board member Carolyn Schofield of Crystal Lake
Strengths: Military background; previously campaigned across the state.
Weaknesses: Struggled to raise money. Not well known. Has pledged to run a positive campaign, making it harder to attack and gain ground.
Lives in: Petersburg
Political experience: First-time candidate; venture capitalist.
Fundraising: Had $9.1 million to start the year after raising $293,665 and spending $1.2 million in the fourth quarter. Much of his money has come from West Coast tech business people.
Running mate: TBA
Strengths: Had most money on GOP side for months. Camera-ready candidate. Running as an outsider.
Weaknesses: Questions about his background as a venture capitalist and whether he properly characterized his civilian service in the military. Has yet to announce a running mate. Not well known yet. Trying to recreate the Bruce Rauner model of outsider businessman when that’s still fresh in voters’ memories.
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