Illinois governor’s race shapes up to be a battle of the billionaires

When hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin decided to throw $50mn of his own money behind a candidate to unseat a fellow billionaire from the Illinois governor’s mansion, the vast size of his spending should have made it a foolproof plan.

The only problem: a rival Republican billionaire had the same idea. Now, the race pits three of the richest men in US politics against one another and has come to symbolise the newest trend in state-level political races — candidates financed by just one wealthy, highly-motivated donor.

The incumbent, Democrat JB Pritzker, is an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune who has self-funded his campaign to the amount of $125mn. Republican Richard Irvin, a mainstream mayor of the state’s second-largest city, is backed by Griffin, chief executive of Citadel. And his rival for the Republican nomination is Darren Bailey, a far-right state senator who has received more than $9mn from GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein.

While Uihlein has injected significantly less into the race than Griffin, and got involved at a later date, it is the Uihlein-backed Bailey who is polling 15 points ahead of Irvin, according to a new poll of likely Republican voters in the June 28 primary.

The election is on track to be the most expensive gubernatorial race in US history, according to OpenSecrets, the non-partisan watchdog group.

It will also be a litmus test of how individual donors can wield influence by writing a big cheque to support a candidate early on in the race — a trend that has grown since the Supreme Court lifted campaign finance limits in 2010. Traditionally, billionaires like Uihlein, a shipping supplies magnate, and Griffin, would funnel their donations through party committees and PACs, which would then pick candidates to back.

Griffin and Uihlein are not alone in going the direct route. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel has recently made a habit of writing $10mn and $20mn cheques to rightwing midterm candidates well before their primaries.

Richard Irvin, left, and Darren Bailey
Richard Irvin, left, and Darren Bailey

Even in this small universe of multimillion dollar individual donations, Griffin’s giving has attracted attention. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one Republican fundraiser.

Before the Supreme Court decision, political donations were capped in the thousands of dollars. “If a corporate PAC makes a $10,000 donation in a cycle, that is huge. You have that candidate’s ear, you have almost unlimited access,” the Republican fundraiser said. With Griffin donating in the tens of millions: “The amount of power he has is unbelievable.”

So far this cycle, Griffin has donated more than $65mn to largely Republican candidates at the federal and state level, according to data from OpenSecrets. In the 2020 cycle, he gave over $180mn to state and federal candidates, while in Illinois, he has pumped $179mn into races since 2002, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Elections.

While Illinois is a reliably Democratic state in presidential elections, there is significantly more competition at the gubernatorial level. The state behaves like Massachusetts, Vermont and Maryland — all blue bastions that regularly elect Republican governors. Of the six Illinois governors since 1991, half have been Republicans, including Pritzker’s predecessor Bruce Rauner, another multimillionaire turned politician.

For Griffin, the state’s richest man, the Illinois governor’s race is personal. In November 2021, he told reporters that he would go “all-in” to financially back whichever candidate he thought had a chance to defeat Pritzker, with whom he has clashed on tax regulation and policing.

“Richard Irvin is the exact opposite of JB Pritzker,” Griffin told the Financial Times. “As mayor of Aurora, Richard has successfully delivered on the issues Illinoisans care most about.”

Pritzker, on the other hand, has failed to reduce “the senseless violence and corruption engulfing the state”, Griffin added, insisting the incumbent — whose sister Penny was Barack Obama’s commerce secretary — has “focused on his own political image and ambitions”.

Representatives for Pritzker and Uihlein did not respond to requests for comment. Bailey’s campaign noted that the state senator had the support of more than 20,000 volunteers, in addition to Uihlein’s financial backing. Irvin has said that a vote for Bailey, whose rightwing views and hardline anti-abortion platform could put off the state’s millions of moderate voters, is a vote for Pritzker.

“It’s like two bullies in a playground,” said Chris Mooney, a political-science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, referring to Pritzker and Griffin.

One Democratic strategist involved in Illinois politics called the Republican primary “surprisingly intense”, warning the general election could be, too, despite the cash Pritzker himself has poured into his campaign.

“Money can’t buy you everything, and Pritzker should not be seen as some sacred cow that can never be defeated. He obviously can,” the strategist added.

Illinois has long had a tradition of colourful — and occasionally corrupt — political figures, many forged in the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago’s bare-knuckled campaigns where unions, property developers and a handful of political dynasties vied for dominance. Griffin, Uihlein and Pritzker are changing that.

“The typical machine politics that dominated the money game . . . has now been replaced by a handful of billionaires,” the strategist said. “It may reduce corruption, but I don’t know if that’s better for democracy.”

Despite the growing number of candidates securing a single billionaire backer — as well as billionaire candidates self-financing their campaigns — it remains unclear whether the funding model is a path to success.

“When you have a candidate who’s getting most of their money from one specific person or group . . . it isn’t the same as getting money from a wide variety of constituents,” said Pete Quist, deputy research director of OpenSecrets.

Most donors who are willing to give candidates small-dollar contributions are also more motivated to vote, Quist added.

Todd Maisch, chief executive of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said he viewed the billionaire political model as unnatural and unsustainable and believed Irvin’s inability to gain traction despite Griffin’s backing was “the end of billionaires deciding what is or isn’t going to happen in Illinois”.

Others are less sanguine. “I don’t think [the billionaires] are going to go away,” said another Democratic strategist. It may just “take a while before they get to a place where labour [unions have] been in Illinois”.

Additional reporting by Caitlin Gilbert in New York

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