Illinois voters added their voices to the 2018 primary season, with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner surviving an unexpectedly stiff primary challenge from the right and a suburban Chicago congressman, Dan Lipinski, narrowly dispatching a Democratic challenger fueled by the party’s liberal wing.
Takeaways from the nation’s second statewide primary in President Donald Trump’s midterm election year:
Rich governor, richer challenger, two approaches
The general election for governor will pit one wealthy businessman against another. The pair’s combined personal spending on the race tops $120 million already.
Rauner, who’s just shy of billionaire status, put more than $50 million toward winning his primary by fewer than 4 percentage points. Democrat J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, spent about $70 million to win 46 percent of the vote in a six-candidate primary.
Rauner, who’s battled the Democratic legislature at every turn, offered his fall campaign theme Tuesday night by inviting support from anyone “disgusted by our system of corruption.” Pritzker countered by embracing the populist liberalism that now animates the Democratic base; he promised to put “Illinois back on the side of working families” while “fighting for unions … dreamers and immigrants … women … and black and brown communities.”
National Democrats view Illinois as one of its best chances to flip a Republican-held governor’s office four years after Rauner joined fellow Republicans Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland to claim governorships in states typically dominated by Democrats. Baker and Hogan boast stronger job approval ratings than does Rauner.
With 94 percent of precincts reporting, 1.2 million Democratic votes had been cast in the governor’s race, compared to 655,000 for Republicans — an advantage that feeds Democratic hopes of a national wave election in November.
For comparison, in 2010, the year of a Republican general election sweep, the Democratic advantage was 959,521 to 783,060. In 2006, the last time the Democrats flipped control of the U.S. House, Democrats outvoted Republicans in the Illinois primary 997,720 to 751,627.
Besides reclaiming the governor’s mansion, Democrats hope the apparent enthusiasm gap helps their nominees in five GOP-held congressional districts in Illinois that are among the party’s targets nationally. Democrats need to flip 24 Republican-held seats for a House majority.
Two divided parties
Illinois voters didn’t settle the ideological battles within the two major parties — they simply illuminated them, even with the impressive turnout among Democrats.
In the GOP governor’s primary, state Rep. Jeanne Ives hammered Rauner for his moderate stances on immigration, abortion and LGBTQ rights. That raises doubts about Rauner’s ability to build a winning coalition in a Democratic-leaning state. He gave a nod to his weaknesses on the right, saying he’s “heard” from “those of you who wanted to send me a message” and asking them to “focus on issues that unite us: reducing taxes, growing jobs and reducing corruption.”
The question is whether that approach, basically repeating his 2014 pitch as a Chamber of Commerce problem solver, can be enough without the national GOP wave that aided his initial election.
Perhaps Rauner’s best comfort is in his Democratic rival’s primary struggles. Despite his spending advantage, Pritzker couldn’t manage a majority after a primary race that featured his two closest competitors calling him a “fraud” and a “liar.” And Pritzker’s pledges to working families notwithstanding, the liberal groups and activists that have propelled the anti-Donald Trump resistance movement lined up mostly behind the second- and third-place finishers, Daniel Biss and Chris Kennedy.
Pritzker must hope that the most outspoken liberal branches of the party follow the lead of Indivisible Chicago, the local chapter of one of the leading national grassroots organizations that formed after Trump’s election to resist his agenda. The group called for party unity Tuesday, called Pritzker’s platform “progressive” and said he “represents a significant upgrade” over Rauner. Perhaps not a full-throated endorsement, but a first step toward what Pritzker needs.
Blue dogs are an endangered species
Illinois’ top-billed congressional primary wasn’t in a battleground district that will determine House control in November; it was a safe Democratic seat in greater Chicago where seven-term incumbent Dan Lipinski, part of the dwindling Blue Dog caucus of moderate and conservative Democrats, nipped his more liberal challenger, political newcomer Marie Newman, by about 2 percentage points.
Lipinski, whose father held the 3rd Congressional District seat before him, had broad union support and nominal backing from national Democratic bosses including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But that didn’t play with Democratic voters increasingly displeased with Lipinski’s opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage, his vote against the 2010 health care law, and his late-breaking support for legislation to shield certain young immigrants called “Dreamers” from deportation.
Newman was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and erstwhile presidential candidate, and liberal groups including the women’s advocacy organization Emily’s List, local Indivisible chapters and Our Revolution, the offshoot of Sanders’ 2016 campaign.
Even with Lipinski surviving, the fact that Newman battled him to a near draw will embolden liberals in other Democratic primary battles and in the larger struggle for party identity.