Illinois Governor’s Race Is Turning Out to Be Far More Unpredictable and Interesting Than Expected.

March 15: The 2018 race for Illinois governor was predicted to be the “Battle of the Billionaires” with Gov Bruce Rauner winning his primary and Democrat JB Pritzker taking the Democratic nomination.  The two billionaires would then likely engage in the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in the history of the United States.

How expensive remains to be seen. But Gov Rauner has already put $50 million into his campaign treasury, and JB Pritzker has already committed $63 million of his own money.  By contrast, President Trump reportedly spent $60 million of his own money to win the presidency.

Because of the vast wealth of both Rauner and Pritzker, few believed that any challenger could put up much of a serious run against candidates that could carpet-bomb their opponents with negative television advertising.

With the primary election just five days away, the election that many expected to be one where both Rauner and Pritzker would both easily skate to victory in their respective primaries is turning into a slug-fest for the nomination in both parties.

The “Battle of the Billionaires” may still come to be, but those early predictions of each having an easy ride to victory are being ignored by those challenging them for the nomination.

Kennedy Campaign photo

On the Democratic side, that there’s a strong battle is less of a surprise than that in the Republican primary.  While Pritzker is a billionaire, he’s facing Chris Kennedy, whose last name is part of Democratic royalty, whose father was Robert F Kennedy, and whose uncle was President John F Kennedy.  Chris Kennedy is running on both his name and his record of running the Chicago Merchandise Mart for years.  Kennedy also brands himself as somewhat of “the honest businessman” in the race who can bring financial discipline to state spending but who knows how to balance fiscal discipline with social needs.

The other Democrat that’s running a surprisingly close race is State Sen Dan Biss, who represents the Chicago area Northside district near Evanston. Biss stumbled early on in his campaign, when he had to fire his first pick for Lt Governor running mate over a policy disagreement but has since picked up the mantle of the “progressive” Democratic candidate, who argues against the millions Pritzker is spending in his run, and against what Biss sees as Pritzker having too close a relationship with Democratic House Speaker, Michael Madigan.

But the biggest challenge Pritzker is facing isn’t coming from another Democrat seeking the nomination for governor, but from Gov Bruce Rauner, who’s spent millions early on attacking Pritzker by associating him with disgraced Rod Blagojevich.  Rauner’s TV ads feature the FBI’s voice recordings of former Gov Blagojevich talking with Pritzker.  It’s not so much that Prizker is caught saying anything illegal or questionable, as much as Pritzker is being damaged in an age-old attack that works — guilt by association.

And so, the easy ride for Pritzker is anything but – especially as the Chicago Tribune unleashed its expose on Pritzker’s use of off-shore bank accounts on the very day Pritzker, Kennedy and Biss were holding their last debate — which became very heated at times, as Kennedy and Biss sought to maximize the political damage to Prizker.  Pritzker says there’s nothing to the story, and certainly not anything illegal. But there’s no question that Pritzker’s being damaged by both the Rauner ads, and the Tribune’s articles.

And after years of Democratic voters arguing against a billionaire governor who never held office before, some find it difficult to argue that Democrats should now nominate someone who looks like their version of Bruce Rauner, a billionaire who’s never held office before.

And as we now enter the last week of the primary campaign, the question in the Democratic Primary race is… Has Pritzker been mortally wounded?

But Billionaire Gov Bruce Rauner is having his own issues, with a challenger in Rep Jeanne Ives that was a strong supporter of his four years ago. Now, she’s attacking him like a pit bull going after the mailman.

Rep Ives, announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination for Governor, Oct 28, 2017

Last Fall, when Rep Jeanne Ives (R) announced she would run to the Republican nomination to challenge the governor, few gave her any chance of coming close in the polls with the governor, much less having a shot of winning the nomination.

Despite having served six years in the Illinois House, where she was known for her fearlessness when it came to standing up for issues she felt were important, Rep Ives, remained largely unknown outside of her Wheaton area legislative district.  Had a poll been taken when she announced for governor last fall, she likely would have been doing well to register five-percent.

Capturing the nomination against a sitting governor of her own party, who had endless sums of money, didn’t just seem difficult — some thought she had lost her political mind.

Not only did Ives have no name recognition, she had no money.  She doesn’t come from wealth and because no one gave her a snowball’s chance of winning, she was unlikely to get any support — or so it was thought.

Yet Ives was used to standing strong for what she believed in, and she was willing to give the impossible a try.  Afterall, she didn’t follow the path of so many other young women who go off to get their college degree at a liberal-arts college.  Ives went to West Point, earned a degree in economics, became an Army office where she served as a platoon leader and headquarters detachment commander in Germany.

The Army had trained Ives to fight and trained her to lead.

Rep Jeanne Ives (R)

When Ives joined the Illinois House of Representatives, it was not unusual for Rep Ives to stand her ground in House debates, or even vote against the majority of those in the Republican caucus, if she thought they were wrong when they voted with the majority Democrats.

So when it came to whether she should run to challenge Bruce Rauer for the nomination, she wasn’t one to let long odds stop her. Besides, Ives felt she would make a much better governor than Bruce Rauner, who she had come to think was weak on knowing the details of legislation.

Not only did Rauner prove to be ineffective legislatively, she became critical of Rauner’s constantly blaming Speaker Michael Madigan for Rauner’s failure to pass his Turnaround agenda.  At one point Rauner even told the media he was not in charge of state government, that House Speaker Madigan was in charge.

But despite what looked to others to be an impossible quest, Ives did have a few things going for her; a belief in herself, and a belief that other conservatives around the state were also fed up with the Rauner governorship that had failed to produce any results

Ives also knew there was a growing frustration with Rauner in Republican with what they thought was Rauner’s betrayal of policies many Republicans around the state thought were central to being a Republican – being Pro-Life, and support for enforcing policies against illegal immigration.

Behind the scenes, a number of the frustrated Republicans were calling Ives and encouraging her to challenge Rauner.

What sealed the deal for Ives, and turned her disappointment of Rauner into a call for a conservative crusade to oust him, was his signing two bills in the summer of 2017, that conservatives say showed Rauner was actually a closet liberal on social issues.

Gov Rauner Signs SB-31, the “Trust Act”

Conservatives across the state felt betrayed when the governor’s signed HB-40, a bill providing for taxpayer funding of abortions, and then another bill, SB-31, which Ives and other conservative Republicans say turned Illinois into “sanctuary state.”

That prompted Ives to run and put together a campaign that had virtually no money at the start.  Ives could only drive to any speaking engagement that would have her, while the Gov continued to spend his money largely on TV ads attacking JB Pritzker.

Afterall, what could Ives — with no money, do to him with his millions?

Which is what makes this campaign for governor a lot more interesting than anyone had a right to expect.

With her little campaign that could, speaking to one small group of Republicans in small communities across the state,  Ives generated a lot of enthusiasm among conservative voters who found Ives both compelling in her conservative views, and as a means for them to vent their displeasure with the governor.

Gov Rauner & Rep Ives at the Chicago Editorial Board

One of those Republicans who had HAD it with Gov Rauner was businessman Richard Uihlein, a past supporter of Rauner.  When Ives and Rauner met together before the Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board,  it was widely accepted by those who watched a video of their debate, that Ives had “crushed” the governor.

In the wake of that performance, Uihlein made a contribution of $500,000 to the Ives campaign. This was on top of $500,000 Ives had previously raised.  And within a short period, Uihlein decided to go all in with a donation of $2,000,000.

While still paltry compared to the millions Gov Rauner has to spend, those Uihlein donations allowed Ives to release campaign commercials – and as important — gave her campaign a credibility it had never had.  It said that Rep Ives’ campaign may just be more than an exercise in frustration.

And now with five days to go before the primary determines who will win the nomination, a recent poll shows Ives now just 7 points behind Gov Rauner, when a month ago, he held a 20-point lead.

So the two “shoo-in” candidates of previous expectations, are now fighting for their political lives.  Can Ives pull off the upset of the decade by defeating Bruce Rauner, with all his millions?   And can JB Pritzker grab the nomination given the attacks by Rauner and now the Chicago Tribune article raising doubts in voters minds as to Pritzker’s honesty about his financial dealings?

It’s just possible that March 21st will have Illinois awake with neither of the “Shoo-in” billionaires getting their party’s nomination.

But don’t bet on it.