Guest Commentary | Pritzker, Griffin are Illinois’ twin titans of campaign cash – News-Gazette

Theres nothing else like it anywhere in the nation a steeped political battle between two billionaires.

In one corner stands Gov. J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune who used part of his estimated $4 billion in personal wealth to bankroll his climb to the states top political post.

In the other corner is Illinois richest man, hedge-fund founder Ken Griffin, whose estimated net worth of $28 billion allows him to spend whatever he wants to push candidates who favor his business-friendly policies.

Theyre both multibillionaires and bitter political enemies.

There are a number of states where a billionaire is a major player, but none come to mind where the other party has a billionaire, too, says Politifact Senior Columnist Louis Jacobson, a veteran observer of state politics across the nation.

The active presence of Pritzker and Griffin means Illinois could very well be on its way to surpassing the $260 million spent in the 2018 governors race, $181 million by Pritzker and $79 million by Griffins candidate, former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

This year, Griffin has already pumped $20 million into the gubernatorial campaign of Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, and theres every indication he stands ready to spend more if Irvin can survive the Republican primary to square off with Pritzker in the general election.

How high could it go?

I dont know. Could it be $400 million? Pick a number, said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield and an expert on campaign finance. One of my friends used to tell me everybody knows that half the money spent in political campaigns is wasted. Problem is, nobody knows which half.

Moreover, figures tabulated by Redfield from statewide political campaign records show that between 2013 and 2022, Pritzker and Griffin have contributed more than half a billion dollars to political campaigns and causes.

Let that sink in. Two men spent half a billion bucks for political campaigns.

For Pritzker, $361,878,000. For Griffin, $139,845,000. That includes governors races and statewide constitutional offices in 2014 and 2018; Chicagos mayoral races in 2015 and 2019; state legislative races in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020; the 2020 fair tax amendment fight; and the 2020 Thomas Kilbride Illinois Supreme Court retention race.

Figures compiled by the Center for Illinois Politics for the period of 2002 to 2022 score it a bit differently. For Pritzker, $363,553,156. For Griffin, $141,449,097.

Slice and dice it any way you please, thats a mind-boggling amount of political cash.

However, closer examination shows that while both Pritzker and Griffin have dramatically impacted campaign spending in their respective parties, they have done their spending in sharply different ways.

In addition to funding his own gubernatorial campaign and his failed pet project, the Fair Tax Amendment (which drew $58 million of his own money), Pritzker has given a considerable amount to other candidates and spent on building the Democratic Party infrastructure.

Pritzker got active after the gubernatorial primary. He was funding the statewide party organization and part of that was putting money into organizations at the county level, Redfield said. So Pritzkers acted more like a traditional party builder, and worked with the legislative leaders.

Veteran political consultant Thom Serafin, whos worked for Democrats and Republicans, said Pritzkers immense wealth allowed him to operate separately from longtime (now former) House Speaker Mike Madigan who, in his other capacity as state Democratic Party chairman, also kept a stranglehold on campaign funding.

Whats highly unusual is that youve got the longest serving speaker of any state legislature in the country (Madigan) who coalesced all the fundraising in three or four funds he controlled, but then Pritzker decides he wants to run and he doesnt have to deal with this chairman of the party, all the party fundraising apparatus. Hell just fund himself, Serafin said.

Madigans quick exit from the political scene following a near-50-year reign as Illinois House speaker, came as federal investigators were pressing forward with an investigation that culminated in an indictment for political corruption. But his exit also leaves a vacuum in Democratic political fundraising that Pritzker is working to fill, along with Senate President Don Harmon and House Speaker Emanuel Chris Welch.

Pritzkers money is important, and its important because you dont know how well Harmon and Welch are going to work with the people who traditionally worked with Madigan, Redfield said. You dont know if the trade unions are going to hedge their bets with the Republicans. Or the nursing homes. They dont know exactly how Welch and Harmon are going to operate absent Madigan.

In other words, with Madigan out, Pritzkers money carries even more weight.

Its his party now, which, with the Madigan void, theres every opportunity for him to get done what he wants to do, Serafin said.

On the other hand, Griffin hasnt concerned himself so much with building the nuts and bolts of Republican Party machinery.

Griffin is tied to specific policy concerns that he has and specific people that he wants to support, Redfield said. His behavior was tied more to supporting Rauner and promoting Rauners primary policy agendas and less in terms of long term revitalization of the Republican Party in Illinois.

In the 2014 and 2018 elections, Griffin backed Rauner with more than $36 million in donations. That, of course, came on top of more than $86 million which Rauner, a multimillionaire hedge-fund executive himself, spent out of his own pocket.

And Griffin is largely credited (or if youre Pritzker, largely blamed) for the defeat of the Fair Tax Amendment, after pouring almost $54 million into the opposition campaign.

Rauner dropped out of Illinois politics, moving to Florida after losing the governors race to Pritzker in 2018, and took his lavish campaign contributions with him. His withdrawal left Griffin alone as the biggest fish in the small pond that represents Republican campaign donors in Illinois.

Griffin has contributed relatively little to other candidates or party-wide funds. His biggest contributions in those areas came before the 2016 elections ($5 million each to House Minority Leader Jim Durkin and former state Comptroller Leslie Munger) and the 2018 election ($6 million to Durkin).

Still, Griffins contributions to candidates or policy campaigns may have more impact than Pritzkers larger donations due to the enfeebled state of fundraising for Illinois Republicans.

I can tell you the big-shot Republican-type CEOs in Illinois, they all gave to Mike Madigan, Serafin said. And in fact, they hired his legal firm downtown, too (for property-tax appeals). Theyre not going to give to people who arent in charge of anything.

Republicans arent in charge of a thing. Theyre not really relevant when youre looking at the game board. In Illinois, theyre going to give to the Democratic Party.

To amplify the point, Redfield groups campaign contributions by categories. In 2018 statewide elections, his figures show that Illinois Democrats received 71 percent ($116 million) of all state political contributions compared with $42 million for Republicans.

So far, for the 2022 state legislative elections, the story is much the same. Campaign contributions from the same groups total more than $88 million for Democrats (thats 78 percent), compared with less than $20 million for Republicans.

The Democrats have more incumbents and they hold the gavel in both chambers, Redfield said. So interest groups give more money to Democrats because Democrats have more money and Democrats control the process.

Republicans trying to turn the tide in Illinois fundraising and political power find themselves trapped in a frustrating chicken-and-egg quandary. Democrats raise more money because they have more members, but they also have more members because they raise more money.

Griffin has said he views himself as a counterbalance to Pritzkers money and its influence in Illinois politics. Griffins already picked his favorite in the governors race, Irvin, backing him with money and the manpower of Rauners political operatives.

Irvin has Rauners old campaign team. You know that in terms of his message discipline, Redfield said. I dont think Irvins nearly as smooth as Rauner, but give him credit. So far, hes been very disciplined. In that sense, its Rauner 2.0 ... with Griffins money.

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Guest Commentary | Pritzker, Griffin are Illinois' twin titans of campaign cash - News-Gazette

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