Pritzker's $171,000-a-Day Campaign Costs Him in Illinois Bid

(Bloomberg) -- In his run for Illinois governor, billionaire J.B. Pritzker is investing an average of about $171,000 a day from his fortune to try to win a job that pays $177,412 a year and comes with major headaches.

The same enormous wealth that has benefited Pritzker’s campaign is now complicating what until a few weeks ago looked like an easy victory for him in the March 20 Democratic primary. 

Rivals are pointing to his fortune to suggest the Hyatt hotel heir is out of touch with average voters. One opponent, State Senator Daniel Biss, has created an online calculator that pictures Pritzker in a tuxedo and asks visitors to enter their salary to see how quickly his team would spend that amount.

It adds to a separate perception challenge for Pritzker, in a party primary where non-whites are likely to account for a third or more of the vote. A recently released audio recording from almost a decade ago captured Pritzker and then-Governor Rod Blagojevich, now serving a long prison sentence for corruption, making crass comments about several of the state’s prominent black politicians.

While politics in the nation’s sixth-largest state has long been a blood sport, it has never been so expensive. The contest is shaping up as an extreme example of the consequences of escalating campaign spending: Increasingly, only the rich can afford to run for statewide office in places with costly advertising markets.

As a billionaire, Pritzker, 53, is the heavyweight, but several of the other candidates also have sizable bank accounts. Chris Kennedy, a son of late liberal icon Robert F. Kennedy, is a multimillionaire. Awaiting the Democratic winner will likely be Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, a former private-equity executive worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The governor faces a primary challenge and plenty of other problems as he seeks a second term. Illinois has the worst bond rating of all U.S. states and has struggled to fix its finances amid gridlock between Rauner, who took office in January 2015, and Democratic lawmakers. Rauner has pushed a pro-business, anti-union agenda that he argues is needed to pull the state out of its budget crisis. Decades of financial mismanagement has left Illinois awash in debt and facing more than $8 billion of unpaid bills and mounting pension costs.

A poll released Wednesday by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute showed Pritzker leading the Democratic primary field with support from 31 percent of likely voters. He’s followed by Biss at 21 percent and Kennedy at 17 percent.

For television stations in Illinois, the campaign has been a windfall. Pritzker, an investor and philanthropist, ran his first television ad on May 3 and has been on the air almost continually ever since. His commercials have appeared almost 34,000 times so far, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political advertising. Biss, his nearest Democratic rival on ad spending, has run his commercials about 3,200 times.

Pritzker, the brother of former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, has an estimated net worth of $3.6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. If he wins the primary, it could make the Illinois campaign the most expensive governor’s race in the nation’s history.

“It’s certainly possible because you have the people with the means to supply a very exorbitant amount of money,” said Pete Quist, research director at the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.

California Holds Record

The current record-holder is the 2010 California governor’s race, which drew the most money among non-federal, statewide contests, according to data from the institute, which goes as far back as 2000. That contest included now-Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and former Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman, a Republican. It attracted $244 million in contributions, including about $144 million that Whitman gave to her campaign.

The previous record for an Illinois governor’s race was set in 2014 when Rauner and then-incumbent Democratic Governor Pat Quinn raised a combined total of almost $123 million, according to the institute’s data.

So far, Rauner, who’s facing a Republican primary challenge from Illinois House Representative Jeanne Ives, has put $50 million of his own money into the race, state records show. Pritzker, who formally entered the race in April 2017, has donated $56 million to his own campaign fund and had spent $34.4 million through the end of last year.

“This race is about values and J.B. is the only candidate who has spent significant time crisscrossing this state and listening to the issues that matter most to Illinois families and communities,” Galia Slayen, a Pritzker spokeswoman, said in a statement when asked about how the candidate’s wealth is playing in the race. "After Bruce Rauner lurched Illinois from crisis to crisis and decimated the state’s economy, J.B. is working as hard as possible to bring people together and get this state back on track.”

Campaign contribution limits are waived in Illinois if any of the candidates contribute more than $250,000 to their own bid. Kennedy was the first to cross that threshold, in March 2017.

Pritzker told Bloomberg News in a February 2017 interview that he was willing to spend from his own personal fortune “whatever it will take to run a winning campaign.” Despite all of Pritzker’s spending, Biss has managed to move up in the few public polls that have been conducted.

Part of Pritzker’s loss of support can be attributed to a Federal Bureau of Investigation recording that was unearthed by the Chicago Tribune. On the recording, he and Blagojevich make insensitive comments about black politicians as they discussed who should fill a U.S. Senate being vacated by Barack Obama after his victory in the 2008 presidential election.

Blagojevich’s notoriety -- he was impeached before being convicted on federal charges -- makes Pritzker’s association with him even less appealing. Pritzker has apologized for his remarks on the recording.

To regain his standing, especially with black voters, he’s turned to a familiar tool: more TV ads.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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