Gov. J.B. Pritzker insists his campaign and its allies are just ensuring voters are aware of select Republican gubernatorial candidates’ records. Republicans characterize the effort in more nefarious terms.
Either way, the fact remains that Pritzker’s campaign and the Democratic Governor’s Association will have spent more than $30 million on television ads in the Republican primary by the time voters head to the polls on Tuesday, an influence campaign unprecedented in size and scope.
And it is targeted, with Pritzker running ads against Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, including one highlighting Irvin’s connections to billionaire Ken Griffin, who has poured $50 million into the mayor’s campaign. Another features Irvin saying nice things about Pritzker and, at the end, asks of Irvin “why is he even running?”
“We got six people running on the Republican side, but every time you flip on the television, all you see is attacks against me,” Irvin told me Monday before attending a Lincoln Day Dinner headlined by former Vice President Mike Pence in Peoria. “And J.B. Pritzker is spending this huge amount of money doing that. He's forecasted, he's telling you, who he's most afraid of in the general election.”
People are also reading…
But Irvin’s not the only one Democrats have spent money “against” this cycle. The DGA for months has run television ads labeling state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, as “too conservative for Illinois,” highlighting his pro-life, pro-gun record and support for former President Donald Trump.
The reverse psychology is pretty clear — run “negative” ads against Bailey that will actually prop him up with Republican primary voters while hitting Irvin with more traditional attack ads as well as those highlighting his perceived closeness to Pritzker in the recent past.
With heavy financial support from Griffin, Irvin had long been viewed as the frontrunner in the GOP primary and perhaps the candidate who could give Pritzker the toughest challenge in November.
Bailey, a downstate farmer who has called Chicago a “hellhole” in the past, has been viewed by many Illinois political observers as too conservative to win a statewide election.
But, Pritzker said there’s nothing nefarious to see here. It’s simply an exercise of informing voters about the records of two of the leading candidates seeking to take him on this fall, saying that the messages in the ads “will work through not just the primary but the general election.”
“I'm running a general election campaign,” the governor told me in an interview Monday afternoon. “I mean, I'm focused on beating the Republicans. And these are the messages that people will hear in a general election and I'm running those now. I mean, I have no reason not to do that.”
“It's very important for people to understand who these Republicans are and what it is that they stand for,” Pritzker added. “Whatever may work in a Republican primary about taking away people's rights or being far right and pro-Trump will not work in a general election. And once again, I'm just making that clear because I think that's an important part of our strategy for winning in the general election.”
Most of my interview with Pritzker focused on the impending Supreme Court decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade and what that means for Illinois. Keep an eye out for that story this weekend.
Pritzker is correct in the sense that his campaign and the DGA are pointing out aspects of Republicans’ records. But it must be noted too that only a select few — namely Bailey and Irvin — are receiving any attention from the Democrats.
Though the Democrats aren’t the only ones zeroing in on Irvin. Bailey is running his own ads and a political action committee funded by billionaire Richard Uihlein has also aired ads attacking Irvin.
“Pritzker and the Democrats are hoping, and spending money on in support of that hope, that we'll emerge from our primary so bloodied, bruised, and divided that there won't be enough time in the short time between now and Nov. 8 to pull ourselves together and unite to defeat Pritzker and his fellow Democrats,” said Illinois Republican Party chairman Don Tracy on Monday.
But for all the Republicans complaining about those meddling Democrats, the simple truth is that the strategy appears to be working. In recent weeks, Bailey has surged into a commanding double-digit lead in public polling while Irvin has faded into a distant second.
Businessman Jesse Sullivan claims to have surged in the past week, though there’s little evidence to support this statement beyond internal polling released by his campaign.
At the end of the day, despite all the ads, reverse psychology and other influence campaigns, Republican primary voters will have the final say in this race.
And, whether it was with an assist from the Democrats or not, it appears they may select the candidate who has tied himself the closest to Trump. Even in Illinois, where the state party was long considered more moderate than the national party, that should come as a surprise to no one.
But, in a low turnout primary in an off-year election, anything can happen.
Some pre-Election Day observations
- The 15th Congressional District Republican primary between incumbent Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, and Mary Miller, R-Oakland, could go down to the wire. Though Davis has an organizational advantage, Miller has momentum with former President Donald Trump coming to campaign for her near Quincy on Saturday. In a tight race — and recent polling shows it to be within single-digits — the former president could be the difference maker. He won 68% of the vote in the district in 2020, after all.
- Keep an eye on statewide races where members of the Ken Griffin-backed "slate" have primary opponents. Namely, secretary of state and attorney general. In the former, slate-backed candidate John Milhiser, the former U.S. Attorney for Central Illinois, faces off against state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington. Even before he announced in November, Brady has been crisscrossing the state building support for his bid. Don't be surprised if he pulls it off. Same in the attorney general's race between slate candidate Steve Kim and challengers Thomas Devore and David Shestokas. Devore is best known as the attorney who challenged, along with Bailey, Pritzker's COVID-19 emergency powers. The attention from that alone could be enough to put him over the top in that race.
- This is the latest in recent memory that Illinois' primary has been held. The impact that will have on turnout will be something to keep an eye on. At the very least, it appears that the weather Tuesday will be dry with temperatures in the 80s across most of the state. Given when the state normally votes, it could be worse.
- If you need help finding your polling place, you can look it up here: bit.ly/ILpollingplaces
Contact Brenden Moore at 217-421-7984. Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13