Ill. governor's race appears to pit billionaire against multimillionaire

Aamer Madhani
Ilinois governor Bruce Rauner.
Getty Images

CHICAGO — The battle for governor in financially strapped Illinois will pit a multibillionaire against a multimillionaire, and both candidates appear ready to keep their wallets wide open.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker won their party's respective gubernatorial nominations Tuesday, setting the stage for the Illinois governor race to be one of the most expensive in U.S. history when the two go head-to-head in November.

Pritzker, 53, a venture capitalist and an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune who Forbes estimates has a net worth of $3.5 billion, has already staked his campaign nearly $70 million. Rauner, meanwhile, has poured $50 million into his own re-election bid.

More from USA Today:
Conservative Democrat Rep. Lipinski struggles to fend off liberal primary challenge
Illinois Democrats wage brutal, pricey primary fight in governor's race
'It's really, really good': Illinois governor toasts diversity by gulping chocolate milk

Rauner, 61, a wealthy former private equity executive who was elected to office in 2014, appears to have escaped a tough challenge in the GOP primary from state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a conservative lawmaker from the Chicago suburb of Wheaton who argued Rauner was not taking a conservative enough tact on issues such as abortion, gun-ownership and immigration.

During the campaign, she also pilloried Rauner for having little success in implementing his so-called turnaround agenda to revive the state's laggard economy. Rauner declared victory as he held a 52%-to-48% lead over Ives with about votes in 83% of precincts counted statewide.

In his victory speech, Rauner acknowledged frustration fellow Republicans have had with his inability to implement his agenda. He asked his party and Illinois residents to unite around him to stop Democrats.

"This election is about our future and what we want our future to look like," Rauner said. "If we surrender to Pritzker and the machine, we will just get higher taxes and more corruption. If we commit to work together, we will build. the Illinois that our children and our grandchildren deserve.

Pritzker beat out a field of six Democrats, including developer Chris Kennedy, state Sen. Daniel Biss, educator Bob Daiber, anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman and physician Robert Marshall. With votes counted in 9626 of 10,119 precincts statewide, Pritzker had 46% of the vote, Biss 26% Kennedy 24%. Daiber, Hardiman and Marshall each had less than 2% of the vote.

In his victory speech, Pritzker sought to tie Rauner to President Trump, who remains unpopular in the deeply blue state he lost by 15 percentage points in 2016.

"I'm not a perfect person. I'm not going to pretend to be," Pritzker said. "Frankly, I've had enough of people like Donald Trump, politicians like Bruce Rauner who can never acknowledge a flaw, never offer an apology, and never take responsibility for anything or anyone under their care."

Democrats nationally are hoping they can surf a wave of growing voter fatigue with Trump and cut into Republican strangleholds of governors' seats as well as chip into GOP majorities in the U.S. Senate and House.

During the Democratic gubernatorial primary, the establishment and more liberal wings had a contentious debate about how having a self-funded, mega-wealthy candidate at the top of the Illinois Democratic Party ticket meshes with the party's larger effort to appeal to middle-class voters.

Kennedy was particularly critical of Pritzker, accusing him of using his wealth to blot out the message of his competitors. But on Tuesday as he conceded the race, he called on Democrats to rally around the nominee.

"The voters of Illinois have spoken and now we must follow their lead and give Mr. Pritzker the support that he has earned," Kennedy said.

Rauner billed himself as a political outsider in his successful 2014 run for governor.

The former private equity executive centered his 2014 campaign on promising to turn around Illinois, which had been mired by a lagging economy, ballooning public worker pension debt and a dwindling population.

But as he seeks re-election, Rauner's term has been marked by gridlock, and he has made little progress is stemming the state's financial crisis.

The state was without a budget for more than two years before lawmakers in July managed to override Rauner's veto of a budget plan that included a 30% tax hike.

Ahead of the passage of the budget, Moody's Investors Service and S&P Global ratings downgraded Illinois' bond rating to one step above junk, the lowest ranking on record for any state. The exodus of Illinois residents continues — the state lost about 33,000 residents last year, marking the fourth consecutive year of population decline.

Follow Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerIsmad