Illinois governor’s race haunted by 2016 presidential primary

 In Politics

 J.B. Pritzker is pictured. | AP Photo

Opponents of gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in Illinois, are making comparisons between his situation and Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. | Max Herman/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, File

Is the Democratic Party putting its thumb on the scale for a billionaire candidate?

Updated


An inevitable candidate. Accusations of a rigged primary. Early commitments from organized labor.

The Illinois Democratic primary for governor sounds a lot like Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential primary campaign — which didn’t end up well for the party.

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Opponents of billionaire J.B. Pritzker, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in Illinois, are now using the Clinton example in an effort to level the field, warning that the party risks blowing a prime opportunity to knock off a vulnerable Republican governor by repeating the same mistakes it made in 2016.

Evoking Sen. Bernie Sanders, Pritzker’s top competitors — Chris Kennedy, the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, and state Sen. Daniel Biss, a Harvard-educated mathematician — say they’ve been elbowed out at every turn by party insiders. They say the Democratic establishment in one of the nation’s biggest blue states has greased the skids for an untested candidate, simply because he has bottomless pockets.

Illinois Democrats are so mesmerized by Pritzker’s unlimited cash pile, and so presumptuous that he will win because of it, Biss said, that few are asking the most basic question: Can one wealthy businessman, Pritzker, defeat another wealthy businessman, Gov. Bruce Rauner, in a general election?

“The establishment that’s supporting Pritzker wants us to not worry about Pritzker’s electability” in a general election, Biss said. “The challenge with inevitability is if you’re not going to have a primary election, then you’re not going to have the nominees respond to criticism.”

There’s no denying the political benefits to Pritzker’s ability to pay his own way. A self-funder at the top of the ticket has the potential to free up millions of dollars to protect seats in the legislature. Rauner has already managed to erode Democrats’ grip on the General Assembly — and the multimillionaire governor has threatened to snatch nine more seats from the ruling party in 2018.

There’s another reason to put a thumb on the scale for Pritzker: In 2016, long before the primary campaigns were underway, Rauner deposited $50 million into his campaign fund, and billionaire donor Ken Griffin added another $20 million. When all the dust is settled, the 2018 governor’s race is expected to be one of the costliest in American history.

Pritzker’s campaign takes issue with the comparison to Clinton, and it has a point of reference: His campaign manager, Anne Caprara, headed Clinton’s super PAC in 2016.

“The idea that J.B. started out as a presupposed candidate is just wrong,” Caprara said. “The first thing I said to J.B. was that he was going to have to work hard for the nomination, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”

Influential Pritzker supporters — including U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos and state Sen. Andy Manar — say the businessman is not only doing the shoe leather campaigning, he’s building an infrastructure around the state that the party has lacked for years. On top of opening and staffing offices and building name ID with paid ads, Manar said Pritzker has already demonstrated an organized campaign operation that “holds Bruce Rauner accountable” every day by calling out various administration decisions. In the meantime, Pritzker is vastly outspending his opponents.

He’s already placed at least $15 million in TV and radio ads — roughly $14.8 million more than his next closest Democratic rival. The governor’s race, projected to be the costliest in U.S. history, has already driven out one candidate, Ameya Pawar, who said he couldn’t compete with the money demands.

Rauner, who has picked up on the criticism within Democratic ranks, has sought to use the unrest to his advantage by accusing powerful state party chair and House Speaker Mike Madigan of pulling the strings.

“He has rigged his Democratic primary. He has rigged it, ladies and gentlemen. If you guys won’t report it, shame on you,” Rauner told reporters on Monday. “He has rigged the system; he controls it. It’s a Mafia protection racket.”

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