Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner fired the first shots of the 2018 governor's race with robocalls attacking Democratic foe J.B. Pritzker.
(Phil Velasquez, Kristen Norman / Chicago Tribune)
Rick PearsonChicago Tribune
Gov. Bruce Rauner fired the first shots of the 2018 governor's race on Tuesday with an Illinois Republican Party automated telephone call attempting to tie potential Democratic foe J.B. Pritzker to imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The attack was unprecedented for two reasons: The next election is nearly two years away. And Pritzker, who is largely unknown outside Chicago business and political circles, is only considering a run for governor and isn't a candidate at this point.
The robocall stands as an early signal from Rauner as to what awaits those who might challenge his re-election bid. But it's also an acknowledgment that Rauner's team at this stage views Pritkzer, a wealthy entrepreneur and investor, as a top threat. Pritkzer, listed at No. 190 on Forbes' annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans with a net worth of $3.4 billion, is one of the few in Illinois who could self-fund a campaign and outspend Rauner.
Giving new meaning to the term "season's greetings," the Rauner-funded state GOP launched the slickly produced automated phone call that lasts just over a minute on Tuesday. The call seeks to link Pritzker to Blagojevich as well as to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. Rauner has continued to target the longtime Southwest Side politician, even in the weeks after the governor spent millions of dollars to defeat Democratic legislative candidates by associating them with the speaker.
"J.B. Pritzker wants to run for governor. But how well do we really know Pritzker? We know that political boss Mike Madigan likes Pritzker and his billion-dollar fortune as much as disgraced and imprisoned Governor Rod Blagojevich did," a narrator says in the call.
"Pritzker told Blagojevich he wanted to be appointed to the U.S. Senate, and in exchange Blagojevich wanted J.B. to personally raise tens of millions of dollars for him," the narrator says.
The call features portions of an FBI recording of Blagojevich speaking to then-confidant Doug Scofield on Nov. 11, 2008. At the time, Blagojevich was looking for ways to leverage his appointment to fill President Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat for personal gain — among the issues that led to Blagojevich's federal corruption conviction.
"I betcha J.B. can raise me money like that," Blagojevich says in the recording. "If I can get J.B. to do somethin' like that is it worth, ah, givin' him the Senate seat? Incidentally, he, he asked me for it. Don't repeat that."
The call goes on to play a portion of Blagojevich discussing his desire for "10 million dollars, 15 million dollars" for the creation of a social advocacy group so he can leave the governor's office. Then the call plays Blagojevich saying, "J.B. can do it, couldn't he?" before splicing in the then-governor's earlier comment, "Don't repeat that."
In between Blagojevich's statements, the narrator calls Pritzker "just another crooked insider who seeks to screw over Illinois taxpayers."
Not mentioned in the robocall was another section of the FBI-recorded conversation in which Blagojevich asks Scofield about Pritzker: "Who knows him, that we know that's close to him?" Scofield responds, "Mmm, that I don't know" and later tells Blagojevich, "I'll find out who's close to J.B."
A Pritzker spokesman criticized Rauner over the state budget impasse as well as the robocall tactic.
"You would think a governor who has failed to pass a budget for two years and has allowed human services to be gutted would have better things to do with his time than to dredge up the crazy rantings of Rod Blagojevich," Pritzker spokesman David Lundy said in a statement.
After Lundy's statement came out, the state Republican Party doubled down. In a news release, the state GOP contended Pritzker was close politically to Blagojevich and Blagojevich's estranged father-in-law, former Ald. Richard Mell, and had donated more than $100,000 to Blagojevich's campaign fund.
"We will continue to highlight Pritzker's ties to both Rod Blagojevich and Mike Madigan until he makes a final decision concerning a run for the Democratic nomination for governor," said Aaron DeGroot, a state GOP spokesman. He said the robocall was being made to "Democratic donors, Democratic elected officials and Democratic Party activists."
Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, said the state GOP's effort — and the depth to its early opposition research — may represent a pre-emptive strike to Pritzker and other Democrats considering a challenge to Rauner.
"This could be an attempt at a chilling effect for people to read between the lines and see how much money they have and how willing they are to go negative so early," Mooney said.
The timing of the robocall during the holiday season, as well as coming after often bitter state legislative campaigns and a controversy-filled national election, may give it limited impact, Mooney said.
"Normal rules would say it's a big waste of money, coming during the holidays, with fatigue from the last election, with it coming so far in advance of the next election," Mooney said. "But it's only a waste of money if money matters to you. Even if they get a little bit of benefit out it, maybe it's worth it because they don't care about the money."
Pritzker has been among several names mentioned as possible Democratic contenders to challenge Rauner, a wealthy former private equity investor. Also among those pondering a run are businessman Christopher Kennedy and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, of East Moline.