Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and billionaire Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker spent millions attacking each other even before their 2018 matchup was set, providing a preview of just how brutal and astronomically expensive the race for the state's top job is expected to be.
Rauner is considered one of the nation's most vulnerable GOP incumbents up for re-election this fall, making the typically Democratic-leaning state a top target for Democrats looking to regain some of the governor's offices they lost four years ago.
Pritzker, an investor and heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, already has spent more than $70 million to bankroll his campaign, much of it on ads attacking Rauner for a more than two-year state budget stalemate. Rauner, a wealthy former private equity investor, has put roughly $50 million into his bid for a second term, airing ads that featured wiretap audio of Pritzker talking with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Rauner's personal wealth is just shy of $1 billion, but Pritzker is worth several times more. Combined they're expected to spend enough by November top California in 2010 as the nation's most expensive governor's race.
Pritzker, 53, easily won Tuesday's Democratic primary over Chris Kennedy, the son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy; and Daniel Biss, 40, a state senator who campaigned as the "middle-class candidate."
Pritzker pledged to defeat Rauner but told supporters "we have a real fight ahead of us."
"Tonight, we've taken the next step of beating Bruce Rauner and putting Illinois back on the side of working families," he told a cheering crowd at his campaign party. "I will fight today, and tomorrow, and every day of this election and every day after to get our state back on track."
Rauner, 61, took advantage of a national GOP wave four years ago to pull off a surprising victory in a state otherwise dominated by Democrats and win his first political office. On Tuesday he defeated conservative state Rep. Jeanne Ives for the Republican nomination.
"We are in a critical time, a critical turning point in Illinois," Rauner told supporters. "I am humbled by this victory. You have given me a chance to win the battle against corruption that plagues Illinois."
Ives raised just $4 million — less than any of the other prominent candidates. Once dismissed by Rauner as a "fringe" candidate, she gave him a tougher-than-expected race, attacking the governor's conservative credentials in edgy TV ads. One of them, which the chairman of the state GOP blasted as a "cowardly attempt to stoke political division," portrays actors mockingly thanking Rauner for not doing enough to restrict illegal immigration, abortion and transgender bathroom rights.
In other races on the Illinois primary ballot, state Sen. Kwame Raoul defeated former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general. There also were numerous contested congressional primary races, including a Chicago-area district where seven-term Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski held off a challenge from progressive candidate Marie Newman.
But none involved the kind of spending as seen in the governor's race. Personal wealth solidified Rauner and Pritzker's front-runner status but also made them frequent targets for opponent attacks. Even Kennedy spent $2 million of his own money on the race.
Biss, a Harvard-educated mathematician who gave up teaching to enter politics, set up a website to track what he says is a $171,000-a-day campaign by Pritzker. The Democratic front-runner has been advertising on television from nearly the moment he announced his candidacy 11 months ago.
Pritzker's opponents also have attacked his connections with overseas trusts in low-tax countries, though he maintains they're focused on charitable giving and that he has no control over them. In response, Biss has called him a "fraud" while Kennedy labeled him a "liar."
But far more damaging were the ads Rauner ran with audio the FBI captured of him talking with the now-imprisoned Blagojevich. The ads included a 30-minute infomercial-style ad with the full FBI recordings.
Rauner took on Pritzker again when more tapes surfaced from the Chicago Tribune. They revealed Pritzker describing Secretary of State Jesse White — a Pritzker backer — as the "least offensive" black officeholder to be considered for the Senate seat vacated by then-President-elect Barack Obama. Pritzker has apologized, and White continues to back him.
Rauner also has repeatedly linked Pritzker to Michael Madigan, the longest-serving state House speaker in modern U.S. history and the leader of the Democratic Party of Illinois and a frequent target of the governor.
Rauner rolled to victory in 2014 with a promise to "shake up" Springfield with a pro-business, anti-union agenda including lower property taxes and term limits on officeholders. But his ongoing spat with Madigan and other legislative Democrats left the state without a budget for two years while billions of dollars of debt piled up.