Fresh off cementing his influence over the Illinois Democratic Party with the election of his hand-picked chair, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has given $5.5 million to the state party and campaign committees aimed at helping Democrats maintain supermajorities in the Illinois House and Senate in November.
The governor, a billionaire heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, on Friday gave $1.5 million to the Democratic Party of Illinois, now headed by Pritzker-backed state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez of Cicero, according to state campaign finance records. That brings Pritzker’s total contributions to the state party during the current election cycle to $3 million, approaching the nearly $3.2 million he gave the state party in 2018 as he made his successful bid for a first term.
Pritzker also gave $1 million to the Senate Democrats’ campaign fund, led by Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park, and $3 million to the House Democratic campaign fund, led by Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, a key ally in electing Hernandez to lead the state party.
Pritzker’s political largesse comes as the governor continues to try to broaden the extent of his power in Democratic circles and as the state party aims to keep its total control of Illinois government. The party holds every statewide elected office and has supermajorities in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly. Democrats also have a 4-3 majority on the Illinois Supreme Court, and hold a majority in the state’s congressional delegation.
Candidates for Congress, the courts and the state legislature are campaigning in new districts, which were redrawn last year following the 2020 census to preserve Democratic dominance.
“Governor Pritzker is committed to supporting Democrats at all levels of government and making sure we win in November,” Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Natalie Edelstein said in a statement. “It is imperative that we maintain our House and Senate majorities and fight back against Republican efforts to undo the major progress Democrats have delivered.”
But both the House and Senate Democrats are coming off a primary season in which several incumbents backed by the caucus campaign committees were defeated and Democrats are facing potential headwinds in the November election on the economy, crime and corruption.
Still, Democrats in Illinois are hoping to capitalize on backlash to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning federal protections for abortion rights and a Republican ticket topped by state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia, a conservative downstate farmer endorsed by former President Donald Trump, who in his bids for president lost Illinois by large margins in both 2016 and 2020.
Pritzker’s $5.5 million in contributions to the Democratic Party of Illinois, the Illinois Senate Democratic fund and the Democrats for the Illinois House fund are not the first dollars he’s shared with his political allies and they aren’t expected to be the last.
The $1 million Pritzker gave to Senate Democrats matches a contribution he made to the fund in December, and he’s now given $5 million to House Democrats. What’s more, during the 2022 primary, even though he faced only nominal opposition, Pritzker gave $24 million to the Democratic Governors Association, which then spent millions on TV ads encouraging Republicans to vote for Bailey, who the Democrats viewed as an easier candidate to defeat because of his more conservative views.
Four years ago, Pritzker gave $7 million to the House Democrats’ campaign fund, led by then-Speaker Michael Madigan, who also at the time chaired the state party. Madigan has since resigned both positions and faces federal corruption charges to which he has pleaded not guilty. Of the $7 million that came from Pritzker, $4 million came in late October and early November of 2018. Pritzker also gave $2.5 million to the Senate Democrats four years ago, with $1 million coming in late October of 2018.
A spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Illinois said in that statement that the $3 million from Pritzker “will support programs to elect Democrats up and down the ballot in November’s general election.”
The Senate Democrats’ campaign operation is “incredibly appreciative” for all supporters, including Pritzker, political director Magen Ryan said in a statement.
“This support will be crucial to electing Democrats across Illinois that will lower costs on hardworking Illinois families, protect a woman’s right to choose, and invest in Illinois communities to create good-paying jobs,” Ryan said.
The funding from Pritzker come after Welch earlier this month made two contributions totaling $5 million to the state party from his individual campaign fund. Pritzker in June gave the state party three contributions totaling $1.5 million. Representatives from the Democrats for the Illinois House committee did not return requests for comment.
Concerns about fundraising constraints on the previous chair of the state party, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, because of her role as a federal officeholder were the main argument for her Pritzker-orchestrated ouster last month by the Democratic State Central Committee.
The state Democratic Party ended the first half of the year with $2.8 million in the bank, according to its quarterly filing with the State Board of Elections, making the combined contribution from Pritzker and Welch a substantial influx as a heated campaign season gets underway.
Pritzker so far has pumped $125 million of his fortune into his campaign since the beginning of 2021.
After previously relying on former Gov. Bruce Rauner, Citadel founder Ken Griffin and other wealthy megadonors to fund their campaigns, Illinois Republicans are entering the fall campaign season at a distinct financial disadvantage. Pritzker started July with $60.8 million in his campaign fund, compared with just under $394,000 remaining in Bailey’s account. Bailey has since raised nearly $202,000 more in large-dollar donations.
The dollar differential is a fact Republican leaders acknowledged during the GOP’s day at the Illinois State Fair last week.
“J.B. Pritzker is going to dump millions of dollars into TV ads, and stuffing the mailboxes and so forth, right?” Senate Republican leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods said during the party’s fairgrounds rally.
The “surefire way to defeat his money,” McConchie said, is through direct personal outreach to friends and neighbors, “even some of those moderate Democrats who used to be Reagan Democrats and they left the party,” on behalf of local GOP candidates.
“Bring them back,” he said. “Bring them over to your backyard. Cook them something on your grill. Bring them into your living room. Have them over for a time together. Talk about the candidates that are running in your area.”
Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner reported from Springfield.