Billionaire J.B. Pritzker secured the Illinois Democratic Party’s nomination for governor on Tuesday, after spending tens of millions of dollars of his own money to vault over the other major candidates in the race, including progressive state Sen. Daniel Biss, as well as businessman and Kennedy heir Chris Kennedy.
Pritzker took home 45 percent of the vote, compared to Biss’s 26 percent and Kennedy’s 24 percent. He will most likely head into the general election against incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who was leading over his primary challenger 52 to 48 percent at the time of this writing.
Pritzker spent a record sum of money on the gubernatorial race, putting $69.5 million into his own campaign coffers. He announced his campaign on April 6, 2017, which means he invested an average of about $199,000 a day over the course of his 348-day campaign. By comparison, President Donald Trump spent around $66 million of his own money on his campaign for the presidency.
Pritzker’s next highest donor was the Illinois Education Association, according to the state-based campaign finance reform watchdog Illinois Sunshine.
The other Democratic contenders’ campaign funds didn’t even come close. Kennedy raised $6.9 million and Biss raised $6.7 million. Pritzker also received a last-minute assist in the form of robocalls recorded by former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In 2016, as Clinton battled against Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, Pritzker pumped millions of dollars into a pro-Clinton Super PAC.
The billionaire’s platform is, in some ways, more conservative than those of his defeated rivals. Biss campaigned on the promise of a single-payer health care system, while Pritzker supports establishing an optional public health insurance program. But on other issues, like implementing a $15 minimum wage, Biss, Kennedy, and Pritzker were all on the same page.
The larger dividing issue was control of the state’s Democratic Party. For years it has been de facto ruled by state House Speaker Michael Madigan, whose influence has helped decide the fortunes of Democratic candidates in races across the state. Biss wanted to end Madigan’s control of the state party, while Pritzker declined to join his opponent’s anti-Madigan crusade.
Because of Rauner’s lagging poll numbers and overall unpopularity, combined with the larger Democratic wave sweeping the country, many Democrats believe that they can win the Illinois governor’s mansion this year. However, the progressive wing of the party has argued that the current structure of the Democratic Party would prevent populists from implementing policy even if they were to win, hence the argument over Madigan’s role.
Pritzker’s massive spending — as well as the $75 million raised by Rauner — will likely make the 2018 Illinois general election the most expensive governors’ race in U.S. history.
The huge cost of running for office in Illinois not only crushed Biss and Kennedy, but forced another candidate out of the contest as well. Chicago alderman Ameya Pawar ran for the nomination on a platform of issuing mass commutations for low-level drug sentences, one of the boldest criminal justice stances of any statewide candidate in the country. “You can create a rubric and say, ‘Look, low-level drug offense, nonviolent, commute the sentences; create an automatic expungement program.’ You pair that with workforce development or social supports. That is still cheaper than 35 or 40 grand a year of jailing that person,” he told The Intercept last August.
But two months later, Pawar dropped out of the race. “I had two options: cut staff, which is not an option; or two, take on personal debt — and I’m not wealthy,” he said of his decision. “I’m sorry for the people who supported me that I don’t have the wealth or connections to keep going.”