EARLY voting in Illinois’s gubernatorial primary, which takes place on March 20th, is already underway in Chicago. The outcome had seemed to be a foregone conclusion. J.B. Pritzker, the billionaire heir of the Hyatt hotel dynasty, would win the Democratic vote and Bruce Rauner, the incumbent governor (pictured), would be the candidate for the Republican Party. Yet an unexpectedly strong performance by Daniel Biss, a state senator, who is attacking Mr Pritzker from the left of their party, and Jeanne Ives, a Republican state representative, who is going after Mr Rauner from the right of theirs, is casting a shadow of doubt over the result.
These challenges have arisen thanks to series of scandals and blunders as well the campaigning talents of both Mr Biss and Ms Ives. Mr Rauner is in hot water over the way he failed to deal with 13 deaths from waterborne Legionnaires’ disease, a nasty kind of pneumonia, of veterans at a home in Quincy, Illinois. In January Mr Rauner stayed for a week at the veterans’ home to check on the situation first-hand. Since then four new cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been reported. The governor is now working out whether to move the home’s 350 veterans.
The scandal hurting Mr Priztker is perhaps more painful because it affects his relationship with members of the black community, who represent about one-third of voters in Illinois. A few weeks ago the Chicago Tribune, a local paper, unearthed tapes of a conversation in November 2008 between Mr Pritzker and Rod Blagojevich, then governor of Illinois, who is serving a 14-year prison sentence for trying to sell the Senate seat of Barack Obama after his election as president. In the conversation, which was taped by federal agents investigating corruption charges against Mr Blagojevich, Mr Pritzker and Mr Blagojevich are discussing contenders to replace Mr Obama in the Senate. Mr Pritzker brings up a new name as a contender:
“I’m sure you thought of this one, but Jesse White,” Mr Pritzker says to Mr Blagojevich. “Even though I know you guys aren’t like, you know, bosom buddies or anything, it covers you on the African-American thing.” “Correct,” Mr Blagojevich replies.“(White)’s totally, he’s totally, you know, uh, he’s Senate material in a way that Emil Jones isn’t, if I may say,” says Mr Pritzker, referring to the former president of the Illinois Senate. “OK,” says Mr Blagojevich. “I mean, you know. He’s just, I don’t know how to say it exactly, but Emil’s a little more crass.” Mr Pritzker continues. He notes that elevating Mr White to the Senate would free up another appointment for secretary of state, an office coveted for its patronage jobs. “It’d be a lot less pressure on you. You don’t have to put an African-American in that spot,” says Mr Pritzker.
Mr Pritzker has apologised several times for his insensitive remarks about African-Americans in the conversation. (Like Mr Biss and Chris Kennedy, a businessman who is the third top contender from the Democrats, he picked a black running mate.) At a debate between all six Democratic rivals for the governorship on March 1st, he once again ate humble pie. “When I say I’m wrong, I’m wrong, and I was wrong on that call and I take responsibility for that,” he said. He added that Mr Rauner was using attack ads only against him “because he knows that he can’t win in a general election against me.” Mr Rauner is spending thousands of dollars on a 15-minute ad featuring the conversation between Mr Pritzker and Mr Blagojevich. It shows sepia-toned photographs of the two protagonists and a transcript of their conversation while the audio plays.
Mr Biss is the main beneficiary of Mr Pritzker’s troubles. In recent polls he has moved to second from third place (overtaking Mr Kennedy). Liberal Chicagoans are swooning over the progressive policies of the earnest Harvard-educated maths professor who is the child of violinists and brother of a talented pianist. Mr Biss is in favour of a progressive income-tax rate, universal healthcare and free higher education. He was endorsed by progressive groups, including National Nurses United, Move On and Our Revolution, the fan club of Bernie Sanders.
Mr Rauner was already focused on fighting Mr Pritzker but now needs to watch Ms Ives, who is attacking him with some force from the right. The West Point graduate is fuming about the debacle at the veterans’ home, asking why the governor had not put the men into a “five-star accommodation” long ago. She is hammering him on several recent policy decisions that angered conservatives, including a deal to fund teacher pensions in Chicago, restrictions on the power of police to detain undocumented immigrants, and most controversially, his vote in favour of a bill to expand public funding of abortions.
Ms Ives is running attack ads of exceptionally poor taste. One shows a “criminal” immigrant, a unionised teacher, a transgender man in women’s clothing and a pussy-hatted woman who says she had several abortions all of whom are thanking Mr Rauner for what he has done for them. The ad was too much even for many Republicans. Tim Schneider, the party chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, said in a statement that “there is no place in the Illinois Republican Party for rhetoric that attacks our fellow Illinoisans based on their race, gender or humanity.” He demanded that Ms Ives pull down the ad and apologise immediately.
Ms Ives is doing neither. On March 2nd she told a small crowd of local party members in Moline, Illinois, that Mr Rauner was a “do-nothing liar” who has lied about abortion, taxes and immigration and that she’s the “real Republican” they should vote for. She was critical of recent gun legislation, saying a licensing bill that was sent to the governor hurts small retailers while protecting big box stores. The only gun legislation she supported, said Ms Ives, was to ban bump stocks, a device that allows for more rapid fire.
According to a new poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Mr Pritzker leads Mr Biss by ten points but the margin is smaller than it was a few months ago. And Mr Rauner leads Ms Ives with 51% compared with 31%; with 18% undecided or favouring someone else. Both Mr Pritzker and Mr Biss would beat Mr Rauner at the November election, according to the poll. Yet the poll might not be quite accurate. Only 19% of those surveyed were black and the percentage of black voters is more than 30%. The poll also underrepresented Chicagoans, who account for one-third of the vote, and tend to be more liberal than voters in the rest of Illinois. The battle of the billionaires is turning out to be something of a surprise—except for its nastiness and cost.