On June 28, Illinois held its gubernatorial primary election, which featured several Republican candidates, including Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, State Senator Darren Bailey, and political outsider Jesse Sullivan.
Irvin, a popular local official who happens to be black, had been the favorite among the GOP candidates. But a funny thing happened in the months leading up to the vote. When the ballots were tallied, Irvin ended up in third place, well behind Bailey and the upstart Sullivan.
What happened? The current governor of Illinois, J. B. Pritzker, a Democrat with hundreds of millions in his campaign’s bank account and aspirations for higher political office, decided he would rather face Bailey in the general election.
So, in the weeks leading up to the primary, the Illinois airwaves were absolutely saturated with what seemed like a neverending series of campaign commercials criticizing Irvin’s performance as mayor of Aurora, attacking his background as a combat veteran and attorney, and even calling into question his personal integrity. Yet, the vast majority of those vicious ads did not come from Irvin’s Republican opponents, as one would ordinarily expect. They were funded by Pritzker and came courtesy of his campaign acolytes.
As Irvin noted in the days before the election, “J.B. Pritzker is telling you that every time he takes out an ad. He’s telling you that ‘This is the guy I’m the most afraid of.’”
For instance, one particularly egregious attack ad, paid for by Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association, viciously attacked Irvin’s record as a defense attorney.
“Richard Irvin’s real record on crime? For 15 years, Irvin has been a defense lawyer profiting by defending some of the most violent and heinous criminals,” the narrator says ominously.
This is funny line of attack coming from a party that generally supports “decarceration.” Pritzker has been a prominent advocate of “criminal rights.” In 2021, he signed a bill that many critics deemed “pro-criminal” because it eliminated cash bail and set strict protocols for policing strategies.
In response to Pritzker’s attack ad blitz, Irvin simply stated, “Pritzker is trying to hijack the Republican primary because he can’t run from the facts: Crime is out of control, tax hikes continue, and corruption lives on in state government under Pritzker’s reign.”
Although it is not technically illegal for Pritzker to throw his weight around in the GOP primary race, it is certainly not the most ethical thing for a sitting governor to do.
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, described Pritzker’s tactics as “not unprecedented, but it’s unusual.”
“Putting money into a second group and having that group spend the money on your behalf is something less than maximum transparency,” Redfield said.
Precedented or not, the incumbent governor spending millions of dollars to meddle in the other party’s primary election is beyond “unusual.” Ken Griffin, the Chicago hedge fund billionaire who poured millions of dollars into Irvin’s campaign, contends Pritzker’s “spending tens of millions of dollars in cahoots with his cronies attacking the most successful black political leader in Illinois is despicable.”
Nevertheless, Pritzker’s meddling paid off. He will face in November his favored opponent, Darren Bailey.
For his part, Bailey believes that Pritzker’s interference may backfire in the end.
At a recent campaign stop, Bailey told his supporters, “People say J. B. Pritzker wants me to win this primary because he believes that I’m the easiest opponent to beat. Well, I’ve got news for J. B. Pritzker: Be careful what you wish for because it’s coming. Friends, we’re going to win on November 8.”