According to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, with his latest infusion of $20 million, J.B. Pritkzer has raised nearly $128 million in his bid for governor; incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner is just over $78 million – money they can use not only to propel their own campaigns, but to prop up allies and even to remake their respective parties.
Unlike down-ballot races, where Illinois’ law limiting contributions remains in effect, caps are off in the governor’s race.
Pritzker said he will entirely self-fund his race, but without the caps, he is taking large contributions (recent giving amounts were $25,000 or $30,000) that his campaign says will all go toward an effort dubbed the “Blue Wave” to build up the party’s infrastructure – opening campaign officers, building data systems and organizing volunteer efforts with a goal to elect Democrats up and down the ballot.
“This is about what we ought to be doing right in the Democratic Party and that’s making sure that we’re competing for voters all across this state in every single county,” Pritkzer said last week following a meeting of Democratic county chairs. “Schuyler County, Grundy Coundy, Johnson County. These are areas that are – traditionally people call them red counties. But you know there are thousands of Democratic voters in those counties and in all the counties across the state, not just Cook County.”
(In a statement, Pritkzer spokeswoman Galia Slayen said, “While JB continues to support his own campaign, he launched Blue Wave Illinois to help Democrats across the state compete in November. Blue Wave is a grassroots fundraising project committed to driving turnout, electing Democrats at all levels, and moving Illinois forward.”)
It’s a strategy similar to that employed by Rauner, who paved his way to the governor’s mansion also by largely self-funding, contributing to down-ballot races and rebuilding the state GOP infrastructure.
“The number one place where I’m giving my money, cause it’s the number one place where we can create a better future for the children and grandchildren of our state, is to give to the Republican Party of Illinois so we become a major party in this state again. Now I’m dedicated to that,” Rauner said last week to Illinois Republican county chairmen.
The candidates’ dollars pay for more than campaign signs, paychecks and ads – like this new one the Pritzker campaign rolled out, starring a certain former U.S. president:
It can build power.
When Rauner came onto the political scene, he became the de facto leader of the Illinois GOP; at the start of his term, Republican lawmakers were pretty much in lockstep with him, in part out of fear that if they stepped out of line, he would fund a candidate against them.
It could be similar with Pritzker, were he to win the governor’s race.
The Democratic Party is stronger overall in Illinois, so it’s not quite elephants to donkeys: House Speaker Michael Madigan remains the chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, and he controls campaign committees he can use to do similar work – his PACs contribute to Madigan’s own power base.
But Madigan doesn’t have the personal wealth to match Pritzker, and he has historically given more attention to electing Democrats to the Illinois House than he has to building up the party from the local level.
It raises the question of whether Pritzker, with his deeper pockets, will become the unofficial boss, the one who candidates and lawmakers look to and aim to please.
Seemingly limitless bank accounts also allows Pritkzer and Rauner to rely less on journalists, or what is known in industry parlance as “earned media,” including through debates.
In May, Pritkzer announced he would participate in three media-sponsored TV debates leading up to the General Election: two in Chicago and one in Quincy.
It was a preemptive announcement – no agreement had been worked out with Rauner’s campaign.
“JB committed to three debates in May and looks forward to contrasting Bruce Rauner’s record of failed leadership with JB’s plans to rebuild the Illinois economy and get this state back on track,” Slayen said Monday in a statement.
Rauner’s campaign said Monday that the governor is willing to participate in 10 forums or debates, though the campaign did not confirm which 10.
“Governor Rauner is ready to participate in debates around the state. Unfortunately, J.B. Pritzker isn’t willing to do the same,” Rauner spokesman Alex Browning said in a statement.
Both candidates turned down Chicago Tonight’s invitation for a debate.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky