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A billionaire, a Kennedy and a state lawmaker face off in Illinois governor's primary

A billionaire, a Kennedy and an upstart state lawmaker are the leading Democratic challengers in the race to unseat R...

Posted: Mar 20, 2018 7:17 AM
Updated: Mar 20, 2018 7:17 AM

A billionaire, a Kennedy and an upstart state lawmaker are the leading Democratic challengers in the race to unseat Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The Land of Lincoln, which heads to the polls on Tuesday, has been home to one of the most intense primary run-ins of the midterm cycle, with J.B. Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt hotel riches, in the lead, state Sen. Daniel Biss trying to outflank him on the left and Chris Kennedy, a businessman who's the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, hoping for a late surge after a campaign that's run hot and cold.

Rauner is also facing his own primary challenge from the right by state Rep. Jeanne Ives, who has attacked him for not pursuing a more ambitious conservative social agenda and, like the Democrats, what they view as general incompetence in handling the state's dire financial situation, which included a more than two-year-long budget impasse ending last year.

Democratic primary turns nasty

On the Democratic side, Pritzker has plowed about $70 million of his own money into his campaign, and will enter primary day as a favorite, even as the specter of undecided voters -- which recent polling has shown could be enough to swing the race -- leaves open the potential for a late upset.

Kennedy, who many expected to raid his private riches more frequently (he's drawn about $2 million after a late $500,000 infusion), and Biss have taken turns closing the gap on Pritzker, but the billionaire looks likely to fend them off despite being put on the defensive in the closing months of the campaign by some unseemly revelations from his past.

FBI audiotapes obtained and published by the Chicago Tribune, recorded days after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, revealed Pritzker offering an unvarnished take on race relations and state politics as he discussed potential appointees to Obama's US Senate seat with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"I'm sure you thought of this one, but Jesse White," Pritzker says to Blagojevich, suggesting the Illinois secretary of state as a good choice. "Even though I know you (and White) aren't like, you know, bosom buddies or anything, it covers you on the African-American thing."

Pritzker apologized last month, with White by his side, saying, "On that call, I was not my best self. I can be better. I have been better and I can do better and I have." Former state Senate President Emil Jones, described by Pritzker during the chat as being perhaps too "crass" for the job, was less forgiving: He supports Kennedy.

When the news of Pritzker and Blagojevich's discussion broke, Biss tweeted that it "represents everything that's wrong with our politics: powerful white men, totally unaware of their privilege, horsetrading people of color to gain more power. We need a politics built on co-governing that views all people as equals."

Rauner fends off a challenge from his right

For all the Democratic brawling, perhaps the hottest storyline heading into Tuesday's vote comes from the right -- with an assist from the Democratic Governors Association.

"There's two people that are prominent in state politics right now that cannot win a statewide election," Ives said on WJBC radio last week. "One of them is Bruce Rauner and the other one is (Democratic House Speaker Mike) Madigan. Those two actually have a lot more in common than Jeanne Ives."

But it's been a late ad sponsored by the Democratic Governors Association, which -- on the surface -- attacks Ives, that's been getting the most attention the last couple of days.

The spot begins with a question, "When is a conservative leader too conservative for Illinois?," then goes on to tout -- or criticize? -- Ives for wanting to "ban abortions" and receiving an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. On immigration, the narrator intones, "Ives marches in lock-step with President Trump."

It's hardly the kind of thing that would turn off conservatives ahead of a primary. In a statement, Rauner's campaign said the Democratic Governors Association launched it because it feared the incumbent.

"That's why they've decided to overtly attempt to influence the outcome of the Republican primary in favor of a candidate who is simply unelectable in Illinois," said Rauner communications director Will Allison.

The Democratic Governors Association denies engaging in any such shenanigans.

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