In one of the most expensive governor’s races in American history, rich Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner suffered a resounding defeat Tuesday to even-richer Democratic challenger JB Pritzker.
With 66 percent of precincts reporting, Pritzker led Rauner by nearly 20 points, echoing polls that showed the Democrat with a huge lead late in the race.
It was exactly the return Pritzker had hoped to reap from a historic investment in his fledgling political career. Pritzker, a multi-billionaire heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, poured an astonishing $171.5 million of his own money into his first political run.
In his victory speech, Pritzker praised the contributions of immigrants, “long-silenced” women, and other big constituencies of his party who “endure and overcome struggle.”
“We’re the land of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama,” Pritzker said.
The governor-elect also made clear reference to Republican President Donald Trump, saying Illinois had shown it “rejects red-hat slogans and Twitter tirades.”
At shortly before 8 p.m. Tuesday, less than an hour after polls closed across the state, Rauner called Pritzker to concede the race and he gave a speech to a sparse crowd of supporters.
“It’s been a privilege,” Rauner said. “It’s been an honor for me, as governor and as a private citizen, to serve you. Thank you and God bless you.”
Just four years ago, Rauner was the wealthy businessman and political novice who largely self-financed his campaign for the governor’s mansion.
But he would only last one term in Springfield — a term filled with conflict and gridlock defined by the battle between Rauner and longtime Illinois House Speaker and state Democratic Party Chairman Michael J. Madigan.
With 92 percent of precincts reporting, Pritzker had 54 percent of the vote to Rauner’s 39 percent. Two third-party candidates, Conservative Sam McCann and Libertarian Kash Jackson ended up in the low single digits.
Tuesday’s election for governor mark the end of the most expensive campaign in Illinois history.
Pritzker’s message — which he repeated ad nauseum by spending more than $80 million on advertising — slammed Rauner as a “failed governor.”
The first-time candidate set a national record for self-financing in the campaign. He shared some of his fortune with other Democrats running for state and local office across Illinois.
Rauner, for his part, has given his own campaign more than $95 million, and millions more to other Republicans down the ballot.
All of that money fueled one of the nastiest statewide campaigns in recent memory, with Rauner and Pritzker’s attacks reaching beyond name-calling, and into accusations of criminal conduct.
Throughout the campaign, Rauner mocked his challenger for removing the toilets of a mansion he owns in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood in order to get a property tax break. After a confidential Cook County inspector general report was leaked, calling it a scheme to defraud taxpayers, Rauner argued that Pritzker is “likely” to be indicted. The Cook County state’s attorney is investigating, but would not confirm whether Pritzker was a target of the probe.
The Democrat, for his part, has criticized the governor for his handling of the deadly Legionnaires’ disease crisis at a state-run veterans’ home in Quincy. The repeated outbreaks, which have been the focus of a yearlong WBEZ investigation, have been linked to 14 deaths and nearly 70 people getting sick. Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office has launched a criminal investigation into the state’s handling of the crisis, and a downstate grand jury has issued at least one subpoena to Rauner’s administration.
Pritzker is now faced with the prospect of delivering on some big campaign promises.
Those include legalizing recreational marijuana and reducing taxes on the middle class by moving the state from a flat income tax to a graduated one. Despite repeatedly being asked to define what residents should pay in income taxes to the state, Pritzker never provided a specific plan.
“We will bring fairness to our tax system,” Pritzker said in his victory speech.
Meanwhile, Tuesday’s results mark an end to Rauner’s first and only term in public office, one marked by political stalemate and partisanship.
The venture capitalist won in 2014 by spending millions of his own dollars, while promising to “shake up Springfield” and to “bring back Illinois” from the brink of fiscal collapse.
What ensued, however, was a yearslong, bitterly divisive political war between Rauner and legislative Democrats led by his nemesis, Michael Madigan.
While Rauner sought to weaken unions, Madigan had the power of numbers behind him in the state Legislature to block those measures while coalescing labor into a unified force against the governor. When Rauner campaigned to change worker’s compensation rules or tolower the prevailing wage, Madigan countered by saying those policies would hurt middle-class workers.
The bitter feud culminated in an unprecedented two-year-long state budget impasse, which left Illinois’ public universities and social services in a financial lurch. Low-income students were unsure whether their MAP grant scholarships would be fulfilled, programs meant to help the poor or victims of domestic abuse were suspended, if not completely dissolved, and the state’s debt spiked.
Rauner took the extraordinary step of airing negative TV attack ads against Madigan at a time when there was no election close by. Even then-President Barack Obama traveled back to Springfield, where he got his political start as a state senator, to deliver a speech to legislators about civil discourse in politics.
But it did not resolve the Madigan-Rauner conflict.
After lawmakers overrode Rauner’s veto to approve a state budget and end the impasse, Rauner alienated himself from conservatives in the statehouse when he signed a bill last year allowing Medicaid to cover abortions. That action prompted a challenge from state conservative Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton), who nearly toppled Rauner in the Republican primary, losing by just three points.
In the final days of his general re-election campaign, Rauner claimed that Madigan’s power in the capitol has been weakened, specifically pointing to public claims of bullying and sexual harassment against the speaker’s now-former chief-of-staff and political aides.
“The good news is, (Madigan) is weaker than he’s ever been in his career,” Rauner told reporters.
But after Tuesday’s election, that claim does not hold up.
Madigan appeared to be in position to retain his speakership in the House of Representatives, extending his record-breaking tenure as the longest-serving House speaker in U.S. history.
Part of Pritzker’s record-breaking political spending spree went toward helping downstate Democrats, where the party has not been traditionally strong.
Doug House, who heads the Illinois Democratic County Chairs' Association, said Pritzker's money helped construct offices in 40 parts of the state where Democrats had no party headquarters.
"The money was an issue four years ago when Democrats in Illinois didn't have any,” House said Tuesday evening at Pritzker’s election-night party. “JB's entry into this race gave the Democrats parity.”
Tony Arnold, Dave McKinney and Dan Mihalopoulos are reporters with WBEZ, Chicago's NPR station.