Thirsty Democrats eye Pritzker’s liberal oasis

Could the governor of Illinois be the man to take over from Biden?


CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 12: Illinois gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker attends the Idas Legacy Fundraiser Luncheon on April 12, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The luncheon helps support the Ida B. Wells Legacy Committee which works to develop progressive female African-American political candidates. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

July 21, 2022 09:57

Hit by roaring inflation, sinking approval ratings and with his party heading for a drubbing in November’s mid-term elections, Joe Biden is facing mounting questions about his ability to run for re-election in 2024.

Last week, a poll for the New York Times found that nearly two-thirds of Democrat voters would prefer their party pick a new standard-bearer rather than nominate the 79-year-old president for a second term.

While Mr Biden says he intends to run again, masses of newsprint is already being expended on speculation as to who might step up to the plate if the president opts to sit the race out.

Among those attracting attention is Illinois governor JB Pritzker.

The 57-year-old heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune – a self-described “Ukrainian-American, Jewish, Democratic, billionaire, businessman” – first got the pulse of the Washington press corps racing when it was announced he would address the annual convention of the New Hampshire Democratic party last month. New Hampshire just happens to hold the much-watched first primary ballot of the presidential election season.

But it was Mr Pritzker’s impassioned response to the mass shooting at the Independence Day parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park – and the contrast with Mr Biden’s own somewhat limp words – which threw a national spotlight on the governor.

“You all heard what happened today,” the president said at a White House barbeque. “Things will get better still, but not without more hard work together.”

Mr Pritzker’s tone was sharply different. “If you are angry today, I’m here to tell you to be angry,” he said as he visited the scene. “I’m furious. I’m furious that yet more innocent lives were taken by gun violence.”

The governor later directly took direct aim at the gun lobby, attacking the notion that “you have a constitutional right to an assault weapon with a high-capacity magazine”.

Both the White House and Mr Pritzker’s team are naturally keen to dampen the media chatter surrounding the governor.

Last weekend, Mr Pritzker confirmed that he will back president Biden if he runs again. Of course, though, the governor’s words do not cover a scenario in which Mr Biden decides to bow out.

Certainly, Mr Pritzker is potentially well-placed to make a bid. Worth an estimated $3.6bn, he has oodles of cash to splash on driving up his national name recognition and won’t be required to spend precious time begging others to donate to a campaign. First elected in 2018, Mr Pritzker is financing his own gubernatorial re-election bid this November: in January, he wrote a cheque for $90m, having already spent $35m.

As Michael Bloomberg discovered in 2020, money doesn’t guarantee votes. Mr Pritzker, however, matches cash with political smarts – albeit of a somewhat dubious variety at times. Despite Illinois leaning to Democrats, the governor has been taking no chances with his re-election campaign, opting to meddle in the Republicans’ primary race. Last month, the strategy paid off handsomely when Darren Bailey, a far-right state senator, won the Republican primary to face Mr Pritzker in November, easily beating the more moderate and electable Aurora mayor Richard Irvin.

In all, Mr Pritzker spent $35m running adverts painting the mayor as soft on crime and not a true conservative – a tactic, which has also been deployed by Democrats elsewhere, designed to depress his support among Republican voters. “Tonight, JB Pritzker won the Republican primary for governor here in Illinois,” Mr Irvin said in his concession speech. “He spent a historic amount of money to choose his own Republican opponent.”

With his re-election seemingly in the bag, the governor is now free to run up IOUs around the country which he may come in handy in two years’ time. His foray into New Hampshire, for instance, also included a series of stops on the East Coast where Mr Pritzker campaigned for Democrats in Massachusetts and Maine. He has also made generous donations to fellow Democratic governors running for re-election, including Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Minnesota’s Tim Walz, New Mexico governor Michelle Grisham, and Tony Evers in Wisconsin.

Democrat governors – speculation also surrounds California’s Gavin Newsom and New Jersey’s Phil Murphy – are viewed by commentators as being in pole position if Mr Biden doesn’t seek re-election. Unlike many of the candidates who ran against the president for the nomination in 2020 – such as the underwhelming Vice President, Kamala Harris; transport secretary Pete Buttigieg; or Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar – they are less likely to be tainted by the failings of the Biden administration and the Democrats in Congress.

Mr Pritzker’s fiery response to the Highland Park shootings and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional to abortion is also, perhaps, more reflective of the anger and frustration Democrats feel than the president’s more measured and conciliatory approach.

Thus, even as he suggested last week that he would back the president if he runs for re-election, Mr Pritzker made plain that he felt the administration’s response to the Supreme Court decision was too tepid. “I must say the federal government should be doing more,” he told CNN. “Democrats need to be pushing for a national law that protects reproductive rights across the nation,” the governor said.

Mr Pritzker has indeed shown an urgency which the White House has failed to evince. Promising that Illinois – which has already codified the right to choose into state law – will be an “oasis” for women needing an abortion, the governor has called a special session of the state legislative assembly to make sure it is prepared for the expected influx.

But it isn’t just Mr Pritzker’s rhetoric which is setting Democratic hearts aflutter. Since taking office, he has signed a slew of legislation – much of which commands strong public support – which has delighted the left: introducing a state minimum wage of $15/hour and tough new clean energy targets; investing $45bn in infrastructure projects and increasing spending on education; and expanding healthcare rights. While steering clear of contentious calls to “defund” the police, Mr Pritzker has also introduced a series of new criminal justice and policing reforms, tighter gun controls and an effective end to immigration detention in the state.

Neutral observers, too, agree that Mr Pritzker has acquitted himself well since entering the governor’s mansion. His approach to the pandemic – when more conservative surrounding states frequently had much higher covid infection rates – has shown his ability to “manage the moment”. Sound economic stewardship has also seen Illinois win its first credit upgrade in 20 years.

At heart, Mr Pritzker is, like Mr Biden himself, no cultural warrior. Shortly after his election in 2018, he told the New York Times that his campaign was about “kitchen table issues. It’s jobs and wages” and warned that the Democrats had “got away from that as a party”. “I’m pro-choice, and I’m pro-LGBTQ rights, and I’ve been a civil rights advocate my whole life,” the governor argued, “but if we’re not addressing the problems at the kitchen table that most families have, we’re not really addressing the problems of America.”

Whatever his failings, it was that same approach which two years ago enabled Mr Biden to win back working-class Democrats who had backed Donald Trump in 2016. And it is that strategy which – whoever leads it in 2024 – the party will need to adopt if it is to retain the White House.

July 21, 2022 09:57

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