The donors behind the dollars in governor races: Will war chests matter?

This primary election it's a battle of underdogs, attack dogs and big dogs.

Conventional wisdom and polls forecast Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner will outmaneuver scrappy challenger Rep. Jeanne Ives, and in the Democratic camp billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker is touted as the front-runner over Sen. Daniel Biss and developer Chris Kennedy.

But after President Donald Trump upset expectations in 2016, all bets should be off in Tuesday's election, especially with potential low turnout and undecided voters creating flux, suburban experts said.

"If the real hard core turns out, Rauner is in trouble," veteran Republican organizer Pat Durante of Addison said. "If the moderates turn out, Ives is in trouble. If you asked me to pick who'll win today ... I couldn't."

For the Democrats, "Pritzker is the safe money, but I think it's going to be dramatically closer than anyone thought 60 days ago," former Democratic state Sen. Bill Morris of Grayslake said. "I can see the winner winning with less than 35 percent."

Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker makes his case to voters Feb. 5 in Naperville. Courtesy of J.B. Pritzker campaign

On purely financial terms, investment banker Rauner and Hyatt hotel heir Pritzker have the deepest pockets and the ability to self-fund, with the Republican raising $75.4 million and the Democrat garnering $63.2 million, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Next come Kennedy with $6.9 million, Biss with $6.7 million and Ives with $3.8 million in total funds generated.

The Democratic lineup also includes Chicago activist Tio Hardiman, Madison County School Superintendent Bob Daiber and Burr Ridge physician Bob Marshall.

Do big war chests translate into big wins? Not necessarily. Some of the biggest spenders in past Illinois elections have lost.

Here's a look at recent developments.

Pritzker has funded his own campaign and since Jan. 1 donated about $27.3 million to the cause, state records showed last week. Meanwhile, Kennedy has raised more than $2.7 million, of which he contributed $1.3 million, and Biss has received about $2 million in contributions in 2018, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

With Pritzker's cash reservoir and the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party, which boasts an army of get-out-the-vote committeemen, Morris said it's his primary to lose.

And, he noted, "what's left of the (Chicago) machine will make some difference, but not the kind of difference it would 10 or 20 years ago. ... That's the wild card."

Meanwhile, suburban Democrats in Cook and the collar counties will rely more on direct mailers and debates than on party organizations when they decide how to vote, Morris said.

Polls indicate one-third of the electorate is undecided. That could advantage Kennedy thanks to voters with a soft spot for the iconic political clan, or advantage Biss, who's pushing hard for Bernie Sanders Democrats.

The donors

  Democratic candidate for governor Chris Kennedy talks to Dottie Fletcher of Batavia Thursday at a McDonald's in Batavia. Fletcher showed Kennedy a photo of herself at age 6 shaking hands with his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, in Austin, Texas. Brian Hill/

Kennedy's donors include real estate developers, attorneys and family members. In 2018, top contributors include former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley with $100,000, Habitat Company CEO Daniel Levin with more than $200,000, and attorney Robert Berner of Baker McKenzie with $250,000.

Biss garnered the most donations under $25, a list of itemized donations shows, and his campaign says there were many more that were included in a list of non-itemized donations. He also received hefty handouts from a potpourri of wealthy Democrats and attorneys.

Those include Chicago lawyers Gary Elden with $200,000 and Leonard Goodman with $150,000, California software entrepreneur Steve Silberstein with $150,000, Evanston investment banker Charles Lewis with $250,000, and Chicago philanthropist Gail Waller with $300,000.

Compared to Kennedy with more than 258 individual donations and Biss with over 245 this year, Pritzker's financial disclosures look a little lonely - his only other benefactor is the Illinois Education Association with $14,700.

  Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner gets the endorsement of Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico, left, and DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin during a stop at Chirico's flooring business in Naperville. Bev Horne/, January 2018

On the Republican side, Rauner reported a formidable $55.6 million cash in hand at the end of 2017. In 2016, the governor donated $57 million to his campaign, and over the course of his political career, he's given himself $95 million, state records show.

That's a stark contrast to Ives, who banked $404,000 cash in hand in the last quarter of 2017. But she surged in 2018, raising more than $3.3 million, mainly because of a $2.5 million windfall from Dick Uihlein of Lake Forest, founder of Uline shipping supplies and a one-time Rauner donor.

"I never expected Ives to spend the kind of money she's spending," Durante said.

Other significant Ives contributors include Chicagoan Vincent Kolber, president of rail equipment firm Residco and a former Rauner donor, with over $500,000; Hinsdale IT entrepreneur William Merchantz with $75,000; and the Illinois Opportunity Project, whose co-founders include conservative talk show host Dan Proft.

Republican candidate for governor and state Rep. Jeanne Ives speaks to members of the City Club of Chicago luncheon Feb. 5 in Chicago. Erin Brown/Chicago Sun-Times via Associated Press

Rauner has garnered more than $440,000 in 2018. His biggest donors include previous supporter and Chicago executive William Kunkler of C.C. Industries with $100,000 and the Illinois Republican Party with $191,000. Rauner has donated about $200,000 to the state GOP since 2010.

Durante wouldn't predict who'll win, but he senses an enthusiasm gap. "I would think the hard-core base will go for Jeanne," he said. "I think Rauner needs to get to those moderate Republicans. ... It might be tougher for him than he imagines."

Politics as unusual

The campaign was littered with anomalies and weirdness from the get-go.

For starters, Rauner wasn't supposed to have an opponent, but the state's entrenched financial crisis and political gridlock provoked rumblings of unrest from the rank and file. Despite the government dysfunction, the Winnetka investment banker is endorsed by mainstream Cook and DuPage Republicans.

Ives, of Wheaton, has picked up a slew of local endorsements such as the Wheatland Township Republican Organization, Republican Organization of Wheeling Township and Batavia Township Republican Organization.

She launched her bid after Rauner supported Medicaid funding for abortions. The conservative West Point grad has used social issues to whip up support among the GOP base, although the strategy has backfired with moderates.

Last week, Ives launched an ad blitz calling Rauner a "fake" Republican, while he's retaliated with commercials linking her with beleaguered Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat.

  Democratic candidate for governor Sen. Daniel Biss gets a selfie with Claire Goldenberg, who is running for DuPage County Board District 2. Biss stopped in at Elmhurst College to deliver a speech to students. Bev Horne/, February 2018

Pritzker burst into people's living rooms with an initial blitz of positive ads and led polls early on. He took a hit when FBI tapes were released with him and disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich discussing politics in crass terms but he has the backing of big players in the party. Reports last week of his offshore accounts, which the wealthy often use to hide income, have added to his challenges.

Kennedy was an early favorite for many Democrats. He cast himself as an independent and took on establishment Chicago Democrats, but he's experienced some off moments, as when he praised Rauner for "speaking truth to power."

Biss, of Evanston, has emerged from relative obscurity as a bona fide contender. The former math professor calls himself the only true progressive and candidate with government experience, but he has taken heat for previous votes in the General Assembly.

In a sign that Kennedy poses a threat, Pritzker last week ran ads questioning his rival's comments about Rauner.

Big question in Dem governor race: Can anyone stop Pritzker?

Big voting block in the suburbs splintered over Democrats running for governor as race tightens

Win or lose in GOP primary for governor, Ives helps push Illinois to the right

AP FACT CHECK: A look at Dem governor candidates' claims

Illinois governor vetoes bill to license gun stores

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.