Having vanquished his billionaire nemesis, Kenneth Griffin, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said he took no satisfaction in watching the hedge fund mogul’s slate of Republican candidates go down the electoral tubes this week, including Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin.
As part of a declared bid to go “all in” toward defeating Pritzker’s reelection this fall, Griffin poured $50 million into Irvin’s Republican gubernatorial candidacy, only to see his staggering investment shrivel up with Irvin’s third-place finish in the six-way primary on Tuesday.
In a wide-ranging interview with WBEZ following that election, Pritzker made clear he had no intention of gloating over the defeat of Griffin’s candidates for governor, attorney general and secretary of state. A political rivalry dubbed the “battle of the billionaires” was a bitter fight Griffin started, not him, the governor said.
“That’s not on me. That’s on him,” Pritzker said.
In the same South Loop hotel where Pritzker delivered his victory speech over a nominal primary challenger, the governor spoke about the fall campaign against GOP nominee Darren Bailey, efforts to keep Illinois a “safe haven” for those seeking abortions and his commitment not to run for president against Democrat Joe Biden in 2024.
Pritzker, a first-term Democrat, also reflected on the U.S. House’s intensifying Jan. 6 hearings and said he believes this past week’s blockbuster testimony from a former top aide to Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff could provide enough evidence to warrant Trump’s criminal indictment.
State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, was the runaway winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary, and Pritzker has already targeted the downstate farmer for his views on abortion and the glowing endorsement he received from Trump, two issues that figure to play heavily in the fall campaign.
In defeating Irvin and four others, Bailey and his strategists successfully crafted him as a homespun, downstate grain farmer, willing to take a flamethrower to excess state spending in Springfield and go toe-to-toe against the state’s billionaire governor.
Bailey has a robust presence on Facebook, with more than 100,000 followers. He offers daily videos talking about everything from the day’s weather to his political travels and disdain for Democrats to his relationship with God. Most every post includes readings from the Bible and prayer.
Pritzker, meanwhile, is leading a charge to keep abortions legal and accessible in Illinois after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark, 49-year Roe v. Wade opinion last week. Bailey has won the support of anti-abortion groups and has vowed to tighten access to abortions, if elected, and reinstate Illinois’ parental notification law.
The governor recently ordered state lawmakers back to Springfield to pass new abortion legislation and renewed his pledge to guarantee Illinois remains a “safe haven” for those seeking abortions, both here and women from out of state.
“We just need to secure what Illinois is, which is a haven — a safe haven — for people who want to exercise those rights. We’re not going to provide dollars to people coming from out of state who want to seek to exercise those rights. But they’ll be able to come here, and we want to help them find private sources if they want to to support their ability to exercise those rights,” he said.
“But it’s my job to protect the women of the state of Illinois and also people who want to come here to protect their own rights,” the governor said.
On Donald Trump, Pritzker said he has been watching the U.S. House’s Jan. 6 hearings and felt alarm this week when Cassidy Hutchinson testified about what she saw in the White House ahead of and during the insurrection while she was a top aide to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
In her blockbuster testimony, she told the committee that she heard Trump encourage the Secret Service to abandon magnetometers so armed supporters of the former president could march to the Capitol unobstructed.
“I was shocked and appalled to hear that the president knew that there were people carrying weapons, and he said, according to her, ‘It’s OK. Take the magnetometers away. They’re not looking to shoot at me.’ I mean, think about that. He’s tacitly acknowledging that it’s OK if they’re looking to shoot other people, like the people that he criticizes like Nancy Pelosi or other Democrats,” Pritzker said.
“He knew what was going on,” the governor said.
Pritzker said he believes Hutchinson’s testimony, along with what other evidence presented by the House committee, should lead to criminal charges against Trump.
“I am not someone who has ever served as a prosecutor or been at the Justice Department, but it seems to me that if you can put that together with evidence that he was plotting behind the scenes, I think that’s enough to indict somebody,” Pritzker said.
Another headline-grabbing piece of Hutchinson’s testimony involved her account of Trump trying to grab the steering wheel from his Secret Service detail while riding to the White House after he spoke at his “Stop the Steal” rally.
She testified under oath that Trump was enraged that his security team ignored his demand to take him to the Capitol after his speech and reached for “the clavicles” of his top security official, a claim Trump and his allies have denied.
Asked if he could fathom reaching for the steering wheel from one of his security detail members or getting physical with any of them in a pique of anger, Pritzker said, “Absolutely not. And if you’ve seen my detail, you don’t want to get physical with any of them. They’ll toss you.”
Trump appears to be angling for another presidential run in 2024 but hasn’t formally declared his candidacy. Democrats across the country are worried about Biden’s reelection chances, given that his approval ratings are in the upper 30s, dragged down by the economy and his inability to get key issues — like voting rights — through Congress.
Biden’s seeming vulnerability and the threat of hurting down-ballot Democrats have led to questions about who could emerge as a viable replacement among Democrats. But Pritzker made clear to WBEZ that he will not be part of that. Pritzker’s potential viability as a presidential contender himself was on display during a recent trip to New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first presidential primary.
“I have no interest in challenging Joe Biden in 2024,” Pritzker said. “I will support him if he runs for reelection. I’m a Democrat [and] believe we need to elect a Democrat. And I think Joe Biden has already said he’s running for reelection.”
That careful language seemingly safeguards the possibility of making a run if Biden were to bow out of a run at reelection.
Here at home, Pritzker put up impressive numbers on Tuesday even though he only faced a nominal challenger. Amassing at least 753,000 votes in an essentially uncontested primary, Pritzker topped his 2018 primary total and nearly eclipsed the total number of votes cast this year for all six gubernatorial contenders combined. Bailey, by contrast, had at least 453,000 votes Tuesday.
“I really believe that the…people who live in this state are not extremists. I think that shows from the numbers [Tuesday],” Pritzker said. “People wanted to show up and vote in the Democratic primary even if just to say we’re not with those extremists.”
With Bailey’s primary win and the victory by downstate attorney Thomas DeVore in the attorney general primary — a lawyer who helped Bailey wage a legal fight against state public-health mandates during the pandemic — Pritzker said the Republican Party in Illinois has veered hard to the right. It’s a zone that general election voters will reject and a sign the state GOP has no room for moderate Republicans, the governor said.
“They’re going to continue to be a minority party if they’re going to continue to move farther and farther to the right. There’s an enormous schism within the Republican Party. They’re going to have to work that out on their own. But they’ve now nominated some completely extremist, Trumpy, MAGA Republicans to represent them for the governor’s race [and] the attorney general’s race.
“I mean, we’re going to have to fight to make sure that these people never see statewide office in the state,” the governor said.
Pritzker and the Democratic Governors’ Association poured millions of dollars into ads during the primary promoting Bailey because Democrats viewed him as a better fall match-up than Irvin, who was more socially moderate than Bailey and had access to Griffin’s seemingly endless supply of funding dollars.
Now, Griffin’s continued financial commitment to Illinois Republicans is in serious question, potentially giving Pritzker a commanding upper hand over Bailey in resources.
Bailey’s main benefactor has been Lake Forest businessman Richard Uihlein, who committed more than $9 million to his primary campaign. But that’s a comparatively small number next to what the billionaire governor poured into his 2018 gubernatorial effort.
Asked if reelection this fall would cost the $170 million-plus his first election in 2018 did, Pritzker said, “Look, I’m going to get our message out in the general election, whatever that’s going to take. And I am continuing to do that everyday. I think that the people are listening to the message that I’m putting out there and believe in the direction of the state.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois government and politics. Follow him on Twitter at @davemckinney.