Illinois governor’s race becomes battle of the billionaires

Three of the richest men in Illinois are pouring millions of dollars into the race for governor, bankrolling campaigns that will be among the most expensive of the midterm elections.

The biggest spender is the candidate whose name actually appears on the ballot: Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D). Pritzker, a hotel magnate whose net worth stands at an estimated $3.6 billion according to Forbes Magazine, has already spent $125 million on his campaign for a second term.

He will face the winner of a Republican primary that is likely to be decided between candidates backed by two other competing billionaires.

One of those candidates, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin (R), has attracted $20 million in contributions from Ken Griffin, the chief executive of the investment firm Citadel. Griffin, the wealthiest man in Illinois, lands in 53rd place on Forbes’s list of the wealthiest people in the world, at an estimated $26.7 billion.

Another is state Sen. Darren Bailey (R), who has received $2.5 million from Richard Uihlein, the billionaire owner of Uline, a business supply store. Uihlein and his wife, Elizabeth Uihlein, the company’s chief executive, have assets worth $4 billion, according to Bloomberg’s estimates. They previously gave $1 million to a political organization that backs Bailey’s campaign.

The three benefactors are emblematic of a new, and much more expensive, era of Illinois politics, said Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois Chicago.

“Gubernatorial campaigns have gone from being $20 million campaigns to $100 million campaigns. To be successful, a candidate now needs to raise at least tens of millions. And much of that is spent on negative advertising,” Simpson said. “It’s a new phenomenon. No notably rich people like in the billionaire class have run before.”

This year will mark the third consecutive Illinois election in which at least one candidate has spent tens of millions of dollars on themselves. In 2014, wealthy investor Bruce Rauner (R) spent $65 million on his successful bid to oust then-Gov. Pat Quinn (D). Rauner spent $79 million on his reelection bid four years later, a figure that was dwarfed by the $175 million Pritzker put into beating the incumbent.

That 2018 contest became the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in American history, surpassing a 2010 election in California in which former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (R) and former Gov. Jerry Brown (D) combined to spend a quarter of a billion dollars. Brown won that race to earn the first of two comeback terms.

The social circles of the ultra-rich are small, even in a big city like Chicago. Pritzker and Griffin know each other, sources who know both men say, though they come from the vastly different worlds of real estate, in the case of the Pritzker family that made its fortune on the Hyatt Hotel chain, and finance.

“You’ve got two people who have totally different philosophical mindsets. They’re both successful and wealthy,” said one prominent fundraiser who knows both men. “You’ve got a huge cultural clash there.”

“Gov. Pritzker is proud to run on his record of getting big things done on the issues that matter most to working families and he looks forward to continuing to travel around the state to discuss his work to raise the minimum wage, expand access to health care, and codify a woman’s right to choose into state law,” said Natalie Edelstein, Pritzker’s campaign spokeswoman. “The out of touch field of Republicans have made it clear they would waste no time dragging Illinois backwards––and voters will undoubtedly see through that in November.”

“We must end the senseless violence that has engulfed our state and put countless mothers through the pain and agony of losing a child to a random shooting. JB Pritzker puts politics first and refuses to address the crime that is tearing apart our state, cities and families. I firmly believe Richard Irvin has the character and leadership needed to again make Illinois a place where people can feel safe to live, raise a family and pursue their dreams,” Griffin said in an emailed statement. “Richard Irvin will bring people together in Illinois and fight to turn our state around. It is time we reclaim our state from the damaging politics of Gov. Pritzker and his corrupt cronies.”

Uihlein could not be reached for comment.

Uihlein and Griffin have found themselves both on the same side and on opposite teams in recent political fights. Both men backed Rauner when he ran in 2014, though Uihlein broke with the incumbent to back state Rep. Jeanne Ives (R), who challenged Rauner in the 2018 Republican primary.

Griffin spent about $50 million against a constitutional amendment Pritzker proposed that would have implemented a graduated income tax. Uihlein also opposed the amendment, which Pritzker spent $58 million to support. Voters rejected the measure in 2020 by a 47 percent to 53 percent margin.

Both Republican donors have spread their wealth around the country, too.

Uilhein is a major contributor to the conservative Club for Growth, to which he has already contributed $13 million this year, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). He has also spent heavily on a political action committee backing Jake Bequette (R), a former NFL player who is challenging Sen. John Boozman (R) in a primary this year in Arkansas.

Griffin in the past year has given $18.5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, the top Republican super PAC aimed at reclaiming control of the House of Representatives. He gave another $5 million to the Senate Leadership Fund and the same amount to a super PAC backing fellow investor Dave McCormick (R), who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

Pritzker, listed in FEC records as an employee of the state of Illinois, is also a prolific political donor outside his home state. In recent months, he has given to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) political action committee and maximum donations to the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Tags Bruce Rauner Darren Bailey Illinois Illinois governor's race JB Pritzker JB Pritzker Ken Griffin

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