The 2018 Illinois governor's race is on pace to be the most expensive in U.S. history, propelled by a wealthy Republican incumbent and a billionaire Democrat who are airing TV ads and hopping private planes to campaign events more than a year before Election Day.
J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune and one of the world's richest people, is among several Democrats trying to defeat multimillionaire businessman-turned-governor Bruce Rauner. Also running is Democrat Chris Kennedy, nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy, who in a typical race might easily be the candidate with the biggest bank account.
But this is not a typical race. All of the candidates combined have raised more than $100 million in the past year. Most of that comes from Pritzker and Rauner's own money. That's almost as much as was spent in the entire 2014 governor's race, which set an Illinois record at $112 million.
The candidates spent nearly $30 million in the first nine months of this year — more than seven times the amount spent in the same period four years ago, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
If the trend continues the contest "absolutely" could surpass the most expensive governor's race to date, a record set in California in 2010, said Colin Williams, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform's political data director. He said candidates spent about $280 million in that race, in which former Gov. Jerry Brown defeated ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman.
The eye-popping cost of the Illinois contest has some people sounding an alarm about politics being a playground only for the rich.
Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, who started the governor's race with just $50,000, dropped out this month because he couldn't raise enough money to compete. He said he wasn't willing to strap his young family with huge personal debt.
"For democracy's sake, I hope we see this as a troubling trend," he said.
There's no limit to how much one person could donate to the candidates; under Illinois law, contribution caps are removed if a candidate gives his or her own campaign $250,000 or more in an election cycle.
Kennedy triggered that provision — intended to level the playing field in races with wealthy contenders — when he deposited $250,100 in his campaign fund in March. Since then, Kennedy has added $250,000 more, while Pritzker has deposited about $28 million into his fund.
Pritzker, a venture capitalist who Forbes says is worth $3.4 billion, is completely self-funding his campaign. That will allow labor unions and Democratic county organizations — many of which have endorsed him — to focus their money and energies on down-ballot races such as the Legislature.
Pritzker says self-funding will make him independent of special interests. He also says deep pockets are necessary to compete with Rauner, who spent more than $60 million of his own money to rebuild a Republican Party operation across the state and win the 2014 election.
That same operation helped the GOP pick up seats in the Illinois House in 2016, ending Democrats' supermajority. Late last year, Rauner made a $50 million contribution to his own campaign fund, money that will also help fund the state party.
"Unfortunately he set us on a course that I think is going to mean that we Democrats have got to build the infrastructure that we've lost. It's important that we knock on doors, that we're phone banking," said Pritzker, who has opened field offices across Illinois. "That is the campaign that I'm trying to put together."
Kennedy said he believes "all of us are outraged" by the money in the race but also said Democrats "need to respond" to Rauner and the GOP.
State Sen. Daniel Biss argues the best way for Democrats to do that isn't with huge personal wealth, but with a campaign like his, which has raised $2.7 million from "thousands and thousands of people" making smaller donations — including $50 from his wife.
On the campaign trail, the former math professor talks of his "middle-class life," with kids who share a bedroom. Democrats, he says, have to ask themselves: "Are we going to have an election or are we going to have an auction?"