CHICAGO — The Illinois governor’s race is on pace to be the most expensive statewide election in U.S. history, a spending bonanza expected to cost more than a quarter-billion dollars next year.
Some Illinois and Washington party officials think the contest might run well in excess of $300 million, blowing away the current record-holder for statewide office — the $280 million California governor’s race between former eBay executive Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown in 2010.
Consider this: The various campaigns on both sides have already raised upward of $90 million — and the general election is still 16 months away.
The unprecedented spending could have an effect that reaches well beyond the Illinois border. Organized labor views a Rauner win as an existential threat, and considers the contest a harbinger of whether unions can continue to thrive in Illinois, or lose membership and power as in neighboring Wisconsin.
Also at stake is control of redistricting in the fifth-most populous state in the nation. Republicans currently hold just seven of the state’s 18 congressional seats. Without the governorship, Republicans will be hard-pressed to hold their ground or narrow the deficit.
A number of forces are driving the eye-popping price tag, beginning with the candidates. There are two self-funders — one, J.B. Pritzker, is among the wealthiest individuals in the world and the other, multimillionaire Gov. Bruce Rauner, is predominantly funding his own campaign. The governor also has the backing from billionaire Ken Griffin, who also ranks among the world’s richest individuals.
So far, the bulk of the funds raised have originated from Rauner, who placed a marker with a $50 million personal contribution last December. Griffin, a top Rauner ally who is also among an elite group of donors to meet with President Donald Trump and his administration, heaped on another $20 million — the single largest individual donation in Illinois history.
Yet it’s the entry of Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt Hotels Corp. fortune, that’s amped up expectations of a free-spending, money-burning race. Within weeks of launching his bid in April, Pritzker was up on the air with TV ads. Rauner had already aired ads before that. Those involved in the gubernatorial battle describe the spending as an arms race, pitting two free-spending billionaires willing to invest whatever it takes.
“I’ve never in my career started a race with an opponent sitting on $70 million at the outset,” said Pritzker campaign manager Anne Caprara, who served as executive director of Priorities USA, the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC. “That is new, I will say.”
Republicans are just as blown away by the potential price tag.
“In my 25 years of doing this professionally, I haven’t seen the kind of war chest of this size as early and as massively as we’re seeing in Illinois,” said Phil Musser, a former Republican Governors Association executive director, who described the level of expected Illinois spending as historic.
The $250 million to $300 million figure includes expected spending from candidates, super PACS and outside groups.
It does not include the additional millions that will be spent on down-ballot races. Last November, Illinois legislative races were the theater for the bitter political war between Rauner and powerful Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan, with spending on state House and state Senate seats coming in at a whopping $130 million.
The big spending has already begun. Both candidates are currently airing commercials promoting themselves and outlining what they would deliver for the troubled state — a stunning step at such an early point in the campaign cycle.
Several people close to Rauner said he was willing to withdraw as much as $150 to $200 million from his own personal fortune, and that he was determined not to let Pritzker outspend him.
The Republican governor, facing the hurdle of running for reelection in a liberal state, is planning on a massive air campaign presenting himself as a non-partisan figure who can fix the state’s problems — while also assailing Pritzker as a pawn of Madigan, the longtime state House speaker.
“There’s no doubt that Mike Madigan and his handpicked candidate for governor want to spend unprecedented amounts of money in an effort to protect the status quo and their power, but we are very confident our campaign will have the resources needed to win and put Illinois on a new path," said Kirsten Kukowski, a Rauner campaign spokeswoman.
To some Republicans, the only way to defeat Democrats in this solidly blue state is to outspend them.
“We can’t compete unless if we have superior firepower there,” said Brad Todd, a GOP strategist and veteran of gubernatorial races.
Whatever the governor spends, they say, it will far eclipse the $68 million his campaign spent — a figure which includes $28 million of his own money — to win the seat in 2014. In that election, Rauner hired a staff of more than 400 people – an unheard-of number for a governor’s race and one that could be dwarfed this time around.
Those surrounding Pritzker were unwilling to estimate what the billionaire would spend on the contest, should he survive the Democratic primary, except to say he would do what it took to win.
“Bruce Rauner and special interest groups have spent over $100 million to get him elected and for him to stay in power, but all Illinois has gotten in return is a 736-day budget crisis, instability, and cuts in services,” Caprara said. “The damage is done. He’s a failed governor and as Democrats we’ve got to fight back — against Rauner and Trump — and our campaign is committed to ensuring Rauner is no longer in office next November.”
Well aware of Rauner’s nearly unlimited resources, the AFL-CIO took the extraordinary step of formally endorsing Pritzker in the Democratic primary some 10 months before the March 2018 primary election.
Pritzker poured $14 million into his account within weeks of entering the race. At least part of that money has gone toward taking an early role in building up organizing infrastructure. Despite the state’s blue tint, Illinois Democrats haven’t maintained a coordinated party apparatus. Pritzker’s campaign has already taken on that role in some instances, engaging in legislative fights and funding robocalls against targeted members as Democrats attempted to advance a budget compromise.
But Pritzker must still get through a crowded primary, that includes a prominent Democratic name — businessman Chris Kennedy, a son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, who has automatic name recognition.
For his part, since winning the governor’s mansion, Rauner has pumped money into the state Republican Party, nearly single-handedly propping up its finances. That has meant investments in everything from personnel, to data mining to digital and on-air advertising.
Following the ’14 election, Rauner took the unique step of keeping his data and field programs going — an effort that is expected to intensify in the months to come. The 2018 campaign will be a taller order for Rauner, who will have to reshape his messaging after coming up empty on his promises to shake up the political establishment and bring major change to state government.
“Everything will be advertised. Billboards, the internet. People will be sick of it,” said Curt Anderson, who helped to run Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s race in 2010, when over $150 million was spent — an amount that is sure to be dwarfed in Illinois.
With so much money to spend, Anderson said that he expected both sides to experiment in new and innovative ways.
Even so, one big question remains: How will the candidates be able to spend such a mammoth amount of money in a mid-sized state? While Illinois has eight media markets, only one of them — Chicago — is viewed as truly expensive. The expectation is that both candidates will be clogging the TV and radio airwaves, and also investing heavily on Pandora and other mobile platforms.
Both sides are also expected to roll out massive ground campaigns — so large that some party officials joke that there will be canvassers on every block more than a year out from the election.
Rikeesha Phelon, a Democratic strategist, said for progressives there’s some “queasiness” about that level of spending in Illinois but called it a “fiscal reality.”
“One thing that would make progressives feel a little bit better about that level of money being spent is if it’s spent on infrastructure that’s sustainable for the party moving forward,” Phelon said. “If you’re going to spend that much money, build something that’s going to outlast the candidate.”
That would include, she said, investments in candidate training, updating voter rolls and possibly even building up the left’s version of the Illinois Policy Institute, an influential conservative think tank that has become a fixture in Springfield. Rauner has long aligned with the institute, having given it at least $500,000, and on Monday hired its president as his new chief of staff.
“Think about the role the Illinois Policy Institute has played, keeping members accountable — helping push candidates to the right, being a media source and player in that space,” Phelon said. “Democrats don’t have anything quite like that.”
One thing is clear, Anderson said: it would be a mistake to begin airing slash-and-burn commercials anytime soon — a step, he said, that would badly turn off voters.
“You’ve got to run positive ads, because people will not tolerate a year of negative ads,” he said.
For consultants of both parties, the race is expected to be a boon – with so much money to be had, some have begun to joke about trying to do whatever it takes to get in on the action.
Given Illinois’ ongoing financial crisis, the irony is inescapable. Unprecedented gridlock between the state’s General Assembly and Rauner paralyzed funding to core areas, leading to devastating cuts to social services, higher education and more. While the state finally agreed to a budget for the first time in two years, Illinois is still perilously close to seeing its bonds downgraded to “junk” status largely because of its staggering pension liability — topping $200 billion.
“In Illinois, we have the perfect storm,” said Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “I think it is a critical point in Illinois government, there are a lot of people in this state who feel negatively impacted by what has happened in the last few years.”