'Millionaire's exemption' could make Illinois’ governor's race the nation’s most expensive

Illinois’ governor's race could again be the nation’s most expensive.
Illinois’ governor's race could again be the nation’s most expensive.

Illinois' 2018 governor's race was the most expensive in American history. This year's may top it.

Since January, three billionaires have thrown $140 million into the mix before Illinois' primary June 28. It's a mounting second round in the state's battle of the billionaires, with eye-popping figures.

The hundreds of millions of dollars funneling into the race are, in part, thanks to Illinois’ unique campaign finance laws that trigger a funding free-for-all once one candidate decides to self-fund. The race's outcome could be an expensive lesson in how far money goes in political races.

It’s indicative of the increasingly costly price of gubernatorial races nationwide, said Dan Weiner, director of the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program.

“Governors have a huge amount of power, and we're seeing more money flooding into those races,” Weiner said.

The highest spender in Illinois’ governor’s race is incumbent Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat and the billionaire heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune. Pritzker took office a year before the pandemic began, and his tenure – and reelection campaign – has largely been defined by it. He donated $90 million of his own money to his campaign in January, according to state campaign finance records.

J.B. Pritzker won the governor's mansion in Illinois in 2018 and faces a reelection campaign funded by fellow billionaires in 2022.
J.B. Pritzker won the governor's mansion in Illinois in 2018 and faces a reelection campaign funded by fellow billionaires in 2022.

In June, Pritzker will face Democratic challenger Beverly Miles, a retired Army major.

Among several Republican challengers, two campaigns are bankrolled by other Illinois billionaires.

Richard Irvin, mayor of the western Chicago suburb of Aurora, is backed by multibillionaire Ken Griffin, CEO of the hedge fund Citadel. Griffin is Illinois’ richest man. He gave $20 million to Irvin's campaign in February and $25 million more in May, a drop in the bucket for the hedge fund manager worth more than $27 billion.

State Sen. Darren Bailey has the backing of longtime Republican donor Richard Uihlein, founder of the shipping company Uline. Uihlein and his wife, Liz, were dubbed “the most powerful conservative couple you’ve never heard of'' by The New York Times in 2018. He lands in second place on OpenSecrets’ 2022 list of top donors to outside spending groups, behind Democrat George Soros in political donations, and supports former President Donald Trump. Uihlein – who is worth about $4 billion, according to Bloomberg –  gave two payments of $2.5 million each to Bailey in April and May.

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Citizens United yields Illinois' 'millionaire's exemption'

Under Illinois law, individuals can donate up to $6,000 a candidate per election cycle. As soon as any candidate spends more than a certain amount – $250,000 in gubernatorial campaigns – in personal funds on his or her own campaign, all candidates are freed from contribution limits, opening the donation floodgates. The rule is dubbed the "millionaire's exemption."

It resulted from a challenge to a federal law that was struck down as unconstitutional in the landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, according to Nora Huppert, a lawyer with expertise in the exemption.

Under the federal law, contribution limits to a candidate or federal office would be lifted if an opponent had raised above a certain amount of money from individuals. The Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional because of its asymmetrical nature, calling the law a restriction on the free speech of candidates with money behind them and the people who sought to contribute money to those candidates.

"In the wake of Citizens United, it became much easier for billionaires not just to run their own campaigns but to spend as much money as they want to get other people elected," Weiner said.

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In 2009, campaign finance reformers sought a way to make candidates less dependent on party leaders, according to Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois. The state's Democratic Party was a notorious "machine," historically hand-picking candidates and strong-arming votes.

The party leaders weren't fans of that effort, Gaines said. "What they brought in instead," he said, "was something that was supposed to help incumbents, who already have lots of advantages, from one of the only things that could unseat an incumbent – a really wealthy challenger."

So the Illinois General Assembly passed the millionaire's exemption. Unlike the struck-down federal law, its effect is symmetrical: Limits on spending for all candidates in the same race are lifted once the exemption is triggered.

That plan somewhat backfired when multimillionaire Bruce Rauner, a Republican candidate, had the funds to outspend the Democratic incumbent. In 2014, Rauner spent about $65 million – almost half of which came from his pockets – to oust Gov. Pat Quinn, who spent about $32 million.

The solution for Democrats? Get a bigger spender on the other side, Gaines said.

"That has created this possibility where if both parties have someone with enough money, we have kind of the Wild, Wild West again, where there's virtually no regulation on the donations," Gaines said. "People weren't thinking hard enough about what happens when you let the money flow."

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Battle of the billionaires

Illinois Democrats found a bigger spender than Rauner in Pritzker.

In 2018, the two faced off for governor in a race that cost more than $284 million. Pritzker raised about $175.6 million – mostly his own – and Rauner raised more than $79 million. Primary challengers and third-party opposition raised $29.3 million. Pritzker won the race.

One of Rauner's donors in 2018 was Griffin, who contributed $22.5 million.

In 2020, Griffin took a more central role in opposing Pritzker's goals, contributing millions to beat back a ballot initiative that would have amended the state's flat-rate income tax to make it a graduated rate structure. Griffin and Pritzker spent more than $111 million of their own money combined to back opposing sides of the "fair tax," which didn't pass.

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Uihlein supported Rauner in 2014, donating $2.6 million to his campaign, but backed Rauner's opponent, former Illinois state Rep. Jeanne Ives, in the 2018 Republican primary with $2.5 million, according to state campaign finance records.

Richard Uihlein, an Illinois-based packaging and shipping magnate, has donated to the state's Republican candidates and given millions more to groups working to elect conservative Republicans to Congress from Mississippi to Montana.
Richard Uihlein, an Illinois-based packaging and shipping magnate, has donated to the state's Republican candidates and given millions more to groups working to elect conservative Republicans to Congress from Mississippi to Montana.

This year's race could be more costly. Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, predicted the race could reach $300 million or $400 million before it's settled.

Those figures are chump change for the billionaires, Gaines suggested.

"I don't think either Griffin or Pritzker would shy away from $100 million if that's what it took," he said. "They have that kind of money – they wouldn't really notice spending that."

Can money alone win elections?

Though the state's "millionaire's exemption" can't be found elsewhere, big money in politics nationwide can.

"I think that, without question, this is not a phenomenon unique to Illinois," Weiner said. "We see massive amounts of money flowing into elections across the country, and those amounts have increased exponentially in recent years."

The 2020 election was the most expensive in U.S. history – a record-shattering $14.4 billion spent in the presidential and congressional races, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit group that tracks campaign finance and lobbying. About $2.3 billion was shelled out by 20 billionaires.

In 2018, state election costs reached new highs, as more than $2.2 billion poured into campaigns for governor, legislature and other state offices.

"Money is a huge barrier to entry in politics," Weiner said. "Money isn't everything, but it matters; it matters less in terms of the raw question of who has the most money than it does in terms of who has enough money to compete."

Pritzker is the only sitting billionaire governor, with a net worth of $3.6 billion, according to Forbes' Billionaire Index. When Jim Justice took office as governor of West Virginia, he was a billionaire, but his fortune has declined, according to Forbes. At least two other billionaires served as governors: Tennessee's Bill Haslam and Minnesota's Mark Dayton.

There are several multimillionaire governors, including Virginia's Glenn Youngkin, Colorado's Jared Polis and Nebraska's Pete Ricketts.

More than half of the lawmakers that made up the 116th Congress were millionaires, according to financial disclosures analyzed by OpenSecrets in 2020.

Trump is a billionaire, too.

"It's not hard to imagine the kind of detrimental effect that (wealthy politicians) would have on people's perception of who can be a viable candidate for an office like that, as well as the damage that it could do to people's perceptions of the fairness of elections," Huppert said.

History shows big bucks don't necessarily translate to votes at the polls.

Before Illinois' 2018 gubernatorial race was deemed America's most expensive, the title belonged to California's 2010 governor's election, in which the Republican challenger, former Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, dropped more than $143 million of personal funds against Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown – only to be beat by a 13-percentage-point margin.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg campaigns in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 30, 2020.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg campaigns in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 30, 2020.

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire founder of financial information and media company Bloomberg, showed on a larger scale that money can take a candidate only so far. The 2020 presidential hopeful and 12th richest man in the world spent almost $1 billion on his short-lived presidential campaign, dropping out after Super Tuesday in March 2020.

"He spent a huge amount of money but got nowhere," Gaines said.

Still, more often than not, a candidate's spending correlates with success. An OpenSecrets analysis found that 88% of House races and 71% of Senate races were won by the top spending candidate in 2020. That's largely been the case since at least 2000, the analysis shows.

"Unless you start to implement innovative solutions, to try to democratize the funding of campaigns, you're likely to continue to have elections in which politicians are beholden, in many instances, to a very small group of wealthy backers – unless they have the good fortune to be able to just fund their own campaigns," Weiner said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Battle of billionaires in Illinois' primary tests big money's impact