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The Big Winners and Losers of Illinois’s Primary Elections

The two billionaires came out on top, though one was a much bigger winner than the other. And if you like political advertising and piles of direct mail, consider yourself a winner too.

The smile of a gubernatorial front-runner.   Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Despite the typically low voter turnout, yesterday’s election night was a little less sleepy than usual.

From the normally forgettable down-ballot races, like Cook County Assessor, to a dynastic Democratic Congressional seat in Illinois 3rd District, even national outlets were looking at the Illinois primary as a finger-in-the-wind on issues like centrist candidates and progressive mobilization.

Illinois Governor

Winners: Local TV stations and advertisers

Billionaire Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker and billionaire incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner cinched the nomination for their respective parties last night, all but ensuring the 2018 Illinois governor’s race will break the record for the most expensive state race in history. The existing record is held by California’s 2010 gubernatorial contest between Republican Meg Whitman and the eventual winner, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, that cost $252 million. Rich Miller of Capitol Fax notes the Illinois primary has already broken the record for the highest ad spend—$66 million by Democrats and Republicans—for a non-presidential primary.

Pritzker dumped nearly $60 million of his own money into the primary, while Rauner has spent about $50 million.

With plenty more to spend in what promises to be a knock-down drag-out fight to November, local TV stations, YouTube, Facebook and anyplace else that candidates advertise are sure to have a good year.

Losers: Gov. Bruce Rauner, any Illinoisan who plans on watching TV from now until November

While a win is a win, Rauner’s victory was not exactly a comfortable one. Long considered to be the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the country, Rauner ended up having to fight for his political life before the general election due to Rep. Jeanne Ives’ insurgent candidacy. The state representative from Wheaton didn’t officially announce her candidacy until December, was massively outspent by Rauner, had little statewide name recognition outside her district—yet still managed to come within three points of the incumbent.

Rauner initially failed to take Ives’ challenge seriously and refused to face her in a debate (that may have had something to do with the apparent thrashing she gave him the only time they did meet, during interviews with the Tribune’s editorial board).

The governor is not very popular within his own party and goes into a bruising general election race hobbled by that disharmony—and the ongoing crisis surrounding a Legionnaires outbreak at a veterans home in Quincy.

The morning after the election, Pritzker was already out with a new ad that hammers Rauner’s first term as “four years of failure.” Expect that (or its variation, #RaunerFailedMe) in a lot of TV commercials for the next several months. Rauner, for his part, will continue to beat the drum that Pritzker is “Mike Madigan’s handpicked candidate.”

Illinoisans already deluged with text messages, mailers and TV ads during the primaries are out of luck: There’s going to be plenty more where that came from.

Cook County Assessor

Winners: Investigative journalism, Cook County voters

Much has been made—and with good reason—of the role investigative journalism played in the Cook County Assessor’s race. The joint investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois, along with a study by University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy professor Chris Berry, revealed deep flaws in the assessor’s system where poorer properties were overtaxed, while higher-value properties were being undertaxed.

Races for the county assessor are not usually the type that get voters’ blood moving. But given the details about the incumbent’s assessment practices, citizens had more information on which to base their eventual choice.

Losers: Patronage hires

When incumbent Joe Berrios (who also chairs the Cook County Democratic Party) leaves the assessor’s office, some of his power to make clout hires will go with him. Berrios has been investigated for his patronage hires for years, but has defended his decisions to dole out jobs to his family members, romantic partners, childhood friends, and even the nephew of his tax lawyer.

Illinois House 3rd Congressional District

Winners: Future-minded progressive Democrats

Incumbent Rep. Dan Lipinski eked out a victory over his challenger, political newcomer Marie Newman. The IL-3 race was perhaps the House race to which national media paid the most attention; the race was commonly framed a fight for “the soul of the Democratic Party.” Lipinski styles himself as a centrist, while his critics deride him as a “Trump Democrat” for his anti-abortion rights views (he’s one of just three anti-abortion Democrats in the House of Representatives) and his votes against the Affordable Care Act—the kind of positions his critics say are out of place with the party whose future is leaning more heavily progressive.  

Arguably, Lipinski’s support from establishment Democrats (think the Chicago Machine, labor unions, and national leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) suggest he’s going to be just fine for a while. But Newman, who won progressive endorsements from the likes of EMILY’s List and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), came within striking distance on her first try.

And Lipinski will have to defend his seat again in only two years. In the meantime, support for the very issues Lipinski opposes is only likely to grow stronger in his district.

Losers: Illinois Republicans

Lipinski is a shoo-in for the general election because his Republican challenger, Arthur Jones, is an actual Neo-Nazi.

Even though Jones doesn’t have a prayer come November, his mere existence on the ballot is a terrible look for the Illinois Republican party which failed to field a candidate to oppose him.

To top it all off, the National Republican Congressional Committee put out an embarrassingly tone-deaf tweet after the race was called to gloat about the the disunity among Democrats in the third district.

Meanwhile: Their candidate is a Holocaust denier, although the party is ”considering an independent or write-in campaign for an alternative candidate.”

Cook County Legal Marijuana Referendum

Winners: Cannabis-friendly lawmakers in Springfield

The ballot question over whether Illinois should legalize recreational marijuana was non-binding, but its more than 68 percent “yes” vote achieved the first step of a larger strategy to get legislative legalization.

A strong show of support from Cook County, which makes up roughly 40 percent of the state’s population—gives lawmakers in Springfield a rough approximation of how many Illinoisans are in favor of legalization. The numbers can help to fortify the resolve of pro-legalization lawmakers, and provide some reinforcement to those who are still on the fence.

Losers: Prohibitionists

U.S. support for marijuana has only trended upward in the past decade. It’s not a matter of “if” anymore, but “when.”

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