Petition drives by two Democratic candidates for Illinois governor to salvage a televised downstate debate garnered thousands of signatures by Wednesday, increasing pressure on a third to agree to participate.
State Sen. Daniel Biss' campaign collected more than 2,400 online signatures, while a separate effort by Chris Kennedy collected more than 1,000 for the same cause, reaching a total of more than 3,400 supporters urging the Springfield television station not to cancel the debate scheduled for March 5.
The debate, set to be hosted by WCIA 3, has been at risk of cancellation since J.B. Pritzker’s campaign confirmed the billionaire fundraiser would not attend earlier this month. If cancelled, 2018’s governor race would be the first in recent memory to not have a televised debate outside Cook County.
"Clearly, J.B. Pritzker is worried," Biss spokesman Tom Elliott said Wednesday. "Illinois voters clearly want to see this debate continue with or without him."
In a letter to supporters sent Wednesday, Kennedy wrote: “In order to win back the Governorship, Democrats need the support of not only voters in Chicago, but across the state. It would be a colossal mistake to cancel the debate.”
The Pritzker campaign responded to concerns that the debate would be canceled in a statement last week, saying, “JB has enjoyed participating in over 30 forums and looks forward to participating in the final four of six agreed to debates, which is more than gubernatorial Democratic primary candidates have done in the past.”
State Sen. Andy Manar, a downstate Democratic lawmaker, came to Pritzker’s defense last week as well, tweeting that “@JBPritzker has stood face-to-face w/ Downstate voters more than anyone since Glenn Poshard. That’s what really matters to us.”
The results of a We Ask America poll, released in January, seemed to corroborate that sentiment, as Pritzker had the strongest performance downstate at the time of the poll, with 37.7 percent.
While Biss captured 17.4 percent of the vote across Illinois, according the poll, he had less than 4 percent of voters' support downstate. Kennedy's showing downstate was stronger than Biss', taking just under 16 percent of support.
But the Biss campaign’s success with signatures this week seemed to be another sign that the lawmaker - who has continually branded himself as "the middle class governor" against the billionaire Pritzker - is in the middle of a surge. That same poll showed him slip past Kennedy to take the 2nd place spot overall, while the Pritzker campaign is still feeling the aftershocks of the release of FBI wiretapped recordings in which he discussed African-American politicians with disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Biss also claims to have a slight edge over Pritzker in a one-on-one “hypothetical matchup” against incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, according to an Illinois Public Policy poll, commissioned by the Biss campaign. That survey found Biss would beat Rauner by 17 points, compared to Pritzker's margin of 13 points.
At the same time, Pritzker’s self-funded war chest and ad spending has outpaced every other candidate in the race. Having donated $46 million of his own money to his campaign, Pritzker has attempted to drown out his competitors on the airwaves.
But as far as WCIA's airwaves are concerned, whether or not Pritzker will eventually cave to the pressure and agree to join the March 5 debate remains to be seen. That debate is scheduled to take place just 15 days before the primary election.