Primary season kicks off Tuesday in Texas, but the Illinois primary on March 20 marks the first gubernatorial primary of any consequence.
Democrats were long expected to hold at least an interesting primary, although it was anyone’s guess whether it would be truly competitive. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner was expected to get just nominal opposition. With 18 days to go, it seems that both parties are holding primaries that are more competitive and interesting than expected.
As a Republican in a heavily Democratic state, Rauner has had a target on his back since the day he was elected in 2014. There was a long list of Democrats looking at the race, but the field winnowed to three first-tier candidates: state Sen. Dan Biss; Chris Kennedy, a businessman and son of the late Robert Kennedy; and billionaire venture capitalist and philanthropist J.B. Pritzker. There are also four minor candidates on the Democratic ballot.
By virtue of his wealth and his family’s deep roots in Chicago, Pritzker has always been viewed as the frontrunner. Most observers believed that Kennedy would be Pritzker’s toughest opponent, but he seemed to struggle to get his campaign on track and hasn’t raised the kind of money that many expected. This doesn’t mean that Kennedy isn’t a factor in the race, only that he hasn’t been the target of attacks from his opponents and has run a largely positive campaign to date, at least when it come to paid media. Instead, Biss is the candidate who has gained traction against Pritzker. Biss is running as the anti-billionaire: the middle-class candidate who identifies with middle-class voters. It’s a message that is resonating with some primary voters who might have some doubts about whether a billionaire can relate to their concerns. This is particularly true since Rauner is worth several hundred million dollars and most Democrats are unhappy with the job he has done as Governor.
Pritzker has used his wealth to establish himself as the frontrunner. According to Bloomberg, he has put $56 million of his own money into the race to date. He aired his first television ads in early May of last year and has been a presence on television pretty consistently since. According to Kantar Media/CMAG, Pritzker’s campaign has aired 52 different spots, including ads that have been revised and spots that have aired in different lengths (i.e., a :30 second version of a :60 second spot, or a :15 second version of a :30 second ad). As of February 28, Pritzker’s spot count – the total of all the ads aired – was 34,855, a number that dwarfs that of his primary opponents. The ads have been largely positive and designed to introduce voters, particularly those downstate, to Pritzker. They have focused on his philanthropy and views on various issues. One was an endorsement from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. Kennedy has aired six different ads for a spot count of 1,249. The ads address Kennedy’s vision for the state and several feature footage of his late father. Biss has put up seven different ads for a spot count of 3,387. His ads stress his status as the only candidate from the middle class and promise to “level the playing field.” Both candidates are likely to ramp up their television advertising in the remaining two weeks of the primary race.
Rauner has also played a role in the Democratic primary by airing a number of television ads attacking Pritzker. His campaign has aired 11 different ads for a spot count of 27,360. Some of the spots feature audio of FBI wiretaps of calls between Pritzker and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. These wiretaps were central to Blagojevich’s conviction on charges relating to an attempt to sell a U.S. Senate seat and extortion. It goes without saying that Pritzker does not come across well on these tapes. It seems unlikely that Rauner’s offensive is designed to deny Pritzker the nomination, but there is little question that it has inflicted some damage, which may serve Rauner in the general election.
Polling hasn’t been very consistent. A Victory Research poll (February 6-7 of 1,209 likely Democratic primary voters) gave Pritzker a statistically insignificant three-point advantage over Biss, 27 percent to 24 percent, with Kennedy placing third at 17 percent.
A more recent survey by Southern Illinois University Paul Simon Public Policy Institute (February 19-25 of 472 Democratic primary voters) showed Pritzker leading Biss 31 percent to 21 percent, with Kennedy at 17 percent.
Pritzker’s lead probably isn’t three points, but closer to the 10 points in the Southern Illinois poll. He remains the favorite to win the nomination, but it might not be the kind of decisive win one would expect that a $56 million investment might produce.
As the incumbent, Rauner should have had a very easy road to his party’s nomination, getting just nominal opposition. And that appeared to be the case when the only other candidate to file was a little known state Representative named Jeanne Ives, whose district is in suburban Chicago. A 1987 graduate of West Point, Ives retired from the U.S. Army in 1993 and became a tax adviser and bookkeeper while raising her children. She served on the Wheaton City Council before winning a seat in the state House in 2012.
Little was heard from Ives until last month when her campaign started airing a television ad that generated a lot of controversy. Playing off stereotypes, the spot accuses Rauner of turning Illinois into a sanctuary state, forcing taxpayers to pay for abortions and promoting transgender rights. In other words, Rauner is not a Republican.
She followed that ad with a spot promising Republicans that as Governor she would give them the revolution that Trump’s election seemed to unleash, notwithstanding the reality that Trump lost the state by 16 points.
To date, Ives’ campaign has aired 12 different ads, including three versions of the controversial “Thank you Bruce Rauner” ad, for a spot count of 2,040. While that pales in comparison to Rauner’s advertising efforts, Ives’ spots have gotten a lot of play – for better or worse – on social media and among mainstream media outlets in the state. Much of Ives’ financial support has come from Richard Uihlein, the founder and CEO of Uline, which makes shipping supplies, who has donated at least $2.5 million to her campaign. In 2016, he spent $24 million supporting conservative Republican candidates and causes. It is unclear whether he intends to keep financing Ives’ campaign and whether she will have adequate resources going into the final stretch.
Rauner’s campaign ignored Ives’ ads for a while, but finally launched spots criticizing her for defending state House Speaker Mike Madigan, a Democrat who has been Rauner’s nemesis since he became Governor and has played an outsized role in the gubernatorial contest so far.
According to the Southern Illinois poll (259 GOP primary voters), Rauner led Ives, 51 percent to 31 percent. One GOP strategist contends that the Governor’s lead is closer to 30 points than it is to 20 points. It seems unlikely that Ives will overtake Rauner to win the nomination, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see her beat expectations. It’s worth remembering that Rauner only won the 2014 primary with 40 percent, while Kirk Dillard took 37 percent and Bill Brady got 15 percent. If Ives were to score an upset, Republicans’ chances of holding the seat in November become almost nonexistent.
As for the general election, Rauner will start as the underdog, regardless of whether Pritzker, Biss or Kennedy is the nominee. According to the Southern Illinois survey (1,001 voters), Pritzker was ahead of Rauner, 50 percent to 35 percent, while Biss had a 48-percent to 34-percent lead. But, unlike Ives, Rauner has the resources and the more moderate record to make the general election a fair fight.