Will suburbs decide who wins Democratic primary for governor?

In Lisle, Jax West is going door to door canvassing for Hyatt hotel heir J.B. Pritzker.

In Elgin, Jose Villalobos is blasting out emails, tweets and Facebook alerts about Evanston state Sen. Daniel Biss.

And in Lombard, Tina Tyson-Dunne is training volunteers in phone banking for Kenilworth developer Chris Kennedy.

With just 11 days left before the primary election, local Democrats are splintered on the potential nominees for governor.

The churn in the suburbs, which cast 41 percent of Democratic votes in Illinois' 2016 presidential primary, is enough to keep candidates on edge and hope of upsets alive.

Pritzker, Biss and Kennedy, along with Madison educator Bob Daiber, Chicago activist Tio Hardiman and Burr Ridge physician Bob Marshall, are running in the March 20 primary.

If fundraising and mainstream endorsements are any indication, Chicagoan Pritzker is the front-runner with a war chest of $7.8 million at the close of 2017, compared to Biss' $3.1 million cash on hand and Kennedy's $737,310.

Biss has emerged as a bona fide threat casting himself as the true progressive in the race. Kennedy, a member of the iconic political clan, claims the mantle of reformer and pushed his own party with sharp criticism of power brokers like Cook County Assessor and Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Berrios.

"If enough Democrats vote downstate, that could be enough to take him over the top," Lisle Democrat Ken Mejia-Beal says of Kennedy.

Biss, making the rounds of college campuses and emphasizing small campaign donations, is raising parallels between himself and fiery independent Bernie Sanders, who galvanized millennials and progressives in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

Biss "really speaks to the issues of the middle class and can represent and understand our issues," Elmhurst College student and former Sanders volunteer Ben McAdams said when Biss visited campus in February.

Meanwhile, Pritzker has snagged endorsements from Democratic standard-bearers such as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and state lawmakers.

"I'm with J.B.," state Rep. Marty Moylan of Des Plaines said. "J.B. has the best chance of beating (Republican Gov. Bruce) Rauner."

Backers of Biss and Kennedy don't buy that theory.

Villalobos, an Elgin Township trustee, founded Kane County for Bernie Sanders, which evolved into Progressives of Kane County. He views Biss as "someone intellectual with experience and the know-how to get things moving in the right direction."

Villalobos says he gets a good response stumping door to door for Biss and attributes some of that to the fact "he has actual experience in government."

Not every Democrat who felt the burn for Sanders in 2016 has transitioned to Biss, however.

Sanders delegate John Laesch thinks Biss' voting record, which includes support for pension reform, shows he's worlds apart from the Vermont senator.

But that doesn't mean Laesch is embracing Pritzker, Kennedy et al. "There's serious flaws with all of (the candidates)," said Laesch, an East Aurora District 131 board member.

Mejia-Beal takes heart from polls showing Kennedy close to Pritzker among Chicago voters.

"Right now, everyone's making a mad dash to be the most progressive. ... Chris Kennedy is progressive but still holds true to a lot of moderate principles" that play in rural Illinois, Mejia-Beal said. A civil rights activist, Mejia-Beal "is a huge fan of (Kennedy's) Top Box organization that feeds a lot of underprivileged communities on the West Side of Chicago."

As the son of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, Kennedy has automatic star power although his campaign has drifted at times.

But when she walks her precinct, Kennedy organizer and Democratic Committeewoman Tina Tyson-Dunne of Lombard is finding receptive voters. Kennedy "has a great message and plans to get the state out of its bad situation," she said.

Pritzker, who sucked up much of the oxygen early in the campaign, went into damage control mode in February after FBI wiretaps of him talking politics with disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich emerged in ads sponsored by Rauner.

Pritzker apologized for a conversation where he indicated Secretary of State Jesse White was the best "African-American" option for the Senate seat being vacated by President Barack Obama.

The ads haven't deterred Jax West of Lisle, a Democrat who founded Friends Who March after the 2017 Women's March and is a Pritzker campaign organizer. The commercials "just cherry-picked" quotes and don't reflect Pritzker as a whole, she thinks.

Pritzker "could've been a rich kid and done nothing," West said. "Instead, he's worked his whole life fighting for a woman's right to choose and LBGTQ rights."

Political experts agree turnout and enthusiasm are key for a victory on March 20.

"I guess the edge goes to Pritzker because he has the support of the party leaders and elected folks, but Biss has a well-organized ground game and is making lots of appearances in all parts of Lake County," said former Grayslake mayor and state Sen. Bill Morris.

However, McHenry County Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Kristina Zahorik notes that Pritzker also is getting face-time at grass-roots events.

"You can have an Indivisible group meeting in Algonquin with 10 people in the room and (Pritzker) shows up," she said.

Adding to the drama March 20 are X Factor voters, Zahorik explained. In the wake of Republican President Donald Trump's victory, she's observed a wave of small groups of people gathering to discuss issues and candidates. Many of the participants are female, not necessarily affiliated with a political party, dissatisfied with the status quo.

"They're fired up and they want to be involved," Zahorik said. "There's certainly a lot of enthusiasm for participation - whether it's tied to the party or not."

• Daily Herald staff photographer Bev Horne contributed to this report.

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  State Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston speaks to students at Elmhurst College in February as part of his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for governor. Bev Horne/
Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker poses for a photo with supporter Jax West of Lisle, who organized a recent meet-and-greet for the Hyatt hotel heir. Courtesy of Jax West
  Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy talks with attendees at an Illinois Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Forum last fall in Mount Prospect. Jeff Knox/, October 2017
  Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Daniel Biss speaks with Elmhurst College freshman Rabia Amin in February. Bev Horne/
Democratic candidate for governor Chris Kennedy, a Kenilworth developer and member of the famous political clan, talks to a crowd at a recent event in Naperville. Courtesy of Ken Mejia-Beal
Democratic Committeewoman Tina Tyson-Dunne, left, and her mother, Holly Tyson, stand with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy at the Women's March in Chicago Jan. 20. Courtesy of Tina Tyson-Dunn
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