One-on-One With Gov. J.B. Pritzker as the Incumbent Shifts Focus to the General Election

The day after Illinois Republicans handily selected farmer and state Sen. Darren Bailey as his general election opponent, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveiled glimpses of what’s to come.

In a Wednesday interview with WTTW News, Pritzker flogged Bailey for his ties to former President Donald Trump and promoted tuition-free college for students of moderate means.

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Democrats actively worked to help Bailey succeed in the primary, with Pritzker and allies collectively spending tens of millions of dollars to both attack one of the other GOP candidates, and to help introduce Bailey to voters as a conservative affiliated with Trump – a characterization that polls show is enticing to Republican primary voters.

In an interview Wednesday, Pritzker repeatedly sought to deny that the playbook was designed to do Bailey favors.

Rather, the governor said, he was getting a head start on the general election by portraying Bailey as “extremist” and out of step with Illinois residents.

“I’m running against the Republicans. You’re saying that the starting gun doesn’t start until today?” Pritzker said.

When pressed about the campaign cash he infused into ads featuring Bailey, and whether it played any role in the polarization of politics, Pritzker said he has worked in a bipartisan capacity.

“The fact that Republicans are moving further and further to the right is not my fault,” Pritzker said. “We need to move toward the middle, we all need to be working together to get things done.”

While some big-ticket items have received GOP votes, Republican members of the General Assembly have criticized Pritzker for ignoring the legislature during the COVID pandemic and say they were shut out of the budget talks. That resulted in the party voting against the new state fiscal plan that takes effect Friday.

Republicans and advocacy groups also say the new legislative map is gerrymandering, meaning Pritzker broke a 2018 campaign pledge to not sign into law any map achieved through a leader-directed, partisan redistricting process. 

As for the free college plan, Pritzker offered little details, but said it’s a goal should he win another term.

“I believe that everyone who wants to go to college, whether it’s community college or university, ought to be able to go to college for free if they make median income or below,” he said. “We’re almost there. We’ve expanded our MAP (Monetary Award Program) grants by 50% — everybody that is eligible for a MAP grant today is finally getting one. That was never the case before. So we have more to do to make college affordable.”

The income-based plan is likely to have appeal to voters, and is among the consumer-friendly actions Pritzker is likely to promote on the campaign trail.

As they battle it out with one another over their diametric views on the issues facing Illinois, both men also appear to have aspirations to turn over leadership of their respective parties.

Bailey has in public appearances and interviews repeatedly criticized current GOP leadership for “failing us,” including by compromising too often with Democrats who control Springfield. He also openly bucked party leadership by endorsing conservative candidates over caucus-supported candidates, an indication he’s got designs to not just be the GOP nominee for governor but to move the state party to the right.

On the Democratic side, Pritzker likewise got directly involved in some legislative races and backed certain candidates running for Democratic State Central Committee posts.

Committeepersons choose the leader of the Democratic Party of Illinois. In March 2021, U.S. Rep. Michelle Harris filled the remainder of longtime party head Michael Madigan’s term after the former Speaker of the Illinois House resigned.

Pritzker did not directly say that he wants Kelly out, but when asked if he is exploring trying to get someone else in as party chair, he said “we want to be able to raise money, we want to be able to organize the party in a way that elects more people.”

When asked if that means Kelly has not been successful at doing those things, Pritzker said only “we’ll all be talking about that in the next few weeks no doubt.”

As Democrats maneuver in state politics, Pritzker’s profile has risen nationally.

After a recent trip to New Hampshire, his name has gotten tossed as a potential contender for the presidency in 2024.

“I’m focused on re-election as governor, I intend to serve four years as governor,” he said. “I’m excited about the work that we’ve gotten done already and plan to do much more the next four years.”

WTTW News invited Bailey to “Chicago Tonight” but his campaign team did not respond.

In his prepared remarks for his Tuesday night victory speech, Bailey called Pritkzer “out of touch” and said that he will “work circles around Pritzker and with your help we will win again in November.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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