A big chunk of money from the state’s richest man could not buy much Republican primary love for conservative businessman Ken Griffin’s slate of candidates in Tuesday’s election for Illinois governor and other statewide offices.
Days after announcing his family and business would leave the state for Florida, Griffin reaped a weak return on his $50 million investment in the formerly obscure mayor of Aurora, Richard Irvin.
Instead, the winner in the proxy battle of right-wing billionaires was Dick Uihlein, the Lake Forest packaging magnate who was the primary source of funds for the successful campaign of state Sen. Darren Bailey in the GOP race for governor.
After spending nearly $54 million to defeat an income-tax hike on the richest people in the state in 2020, Griffin promised he would do as much as he could to prevent that proposal’s chief backer, the first-term Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker, from winning four more years in 2022.
And Griffin put his money where his mouth was, bankrolling the Irvin campaign almost single-handedly.
“Except for wealthy politicians who bankroll their own campaign, this is the largest amount ever given by a single donor to a U.S. candidate at any level,” according to a report from the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive watchdog group based in Madison, Wis.
But Griffin’s efforts to influence the governor’s race faced major competition from not only Uihlein but also Pritzker — who spent heavily from his own personal fortune to ensure he would face Bailey, instead of Irvin, in the November general election. Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association spent tens of millions of dollars in the GOP primary, according to Republican and Democratic sources.
In a statement after Irvin conceded the race Tuesday evening, Griffin did not mention Uihlein or Bailey, blaming Irvin’s defeat entirely on Pritzker and the Democrats.
“I believe Richard Irvin would have been a terrific Governor, and I am proud to have supported his campaign,” Griffin said. “The unprecedented tens of millions of dollars spent by Pritzker and national Democrats in the Republican Primary to avoid facing Richard in the General Election demonstrated he was the right candidate.”
Griffin also took this parting shot at the governor: “The people of Illinois deserve so much better than four more years of the out-of-control crime, high taxes, and continued corruption that have defined J.B. Pritzker’s time in office.”
It’s unclear if Griffin will continue his heavy spending in Illinois politics after he and his Citadel hedge fund have packed up and left for Miami. But what was obvious was that his latest big bet on elections in this state was a big failure, up and down the ballot.
The Griffin-supported candidate for secretary of state, John Milhiser, and his pick for attorney general, Steve Kim, also lost Tuesday.
The $50 million from Griffin accounted for nearly 95% of what Irvin took into his campaign account, records show.
Griffin also gave $6,000 each to other candidates he endorsed in statewide races: Milhiser, Kim, Shannon Teresi (running unopposed for the GOP nomination for comptroller) and Tom Demmer (unopposed for the Republican nod for state treasurer).
But Irvin funneled some of the huge amounts he got from Griffin to the down-ballot candidates on the slate. Records show Irvin passed on more than $700,000 to Milhiser, more than $500,000 to Kim and $50,000 to Teresi.
Uihlein spent far less than Griffin in this election cycle. He gave $9 million to Bailey and more than $8 million to the People Who Play By The Rules PAC, which ran ads against Irvin.
The contributions from Uihlein represented nearly 77% of all the money raised in the campaign by Bailey, a farmer from the small town of Louisville, Ill., which is about 240 miles south of Chicago.
Griffin and Uihlein also clashed in the 15th Illinois Congressional District’s Republican primary between two incumbent U.S. representatives, Mary Miller and Rodney Davis. Miller defeated Davis on Tuesday.
While Griffin gave $1.5 million to a group opposing Miller — who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump — Uihlein gave $3 million to a political fund that helped Miller and attacked Davis, according to federal campaign-disclosure reports.
In state and local races alone, Griffin has contributed a total of about $179 million in Illinois in the past couple decades, including:
$53.7 million to defeat the graduated income tax amendment two years ago.
$36 million to Bruce Rauner’s winning bid for governor in 2014 and his losing re-election bid four years later.
$10.75 million to give the Illinois Supreme Court a more conservative bent.
And Illinois is not the only place where Griffin has spent heavily in this year’s elections.
He has “become the largest GOP mega-donor in the country for combined federal and state campaigns this election cycle,” according to Center for Media and Democracy researcher Don Wiener.
Even as he spent more in Illinois than in any other state this year, Griffin also contributed roughly $42 million to Republican candidates at the federal level — more than anybody in U.S. politics except Democrat supporter George Soros, Wiener found.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.