CHICAGO — In the race for Illinois governor, candidate Ameya Pawar was frequently described as an up-and-comer who had the indefinable star quality of a young Barack Obama. One thing he didn’t have: a boatload of cash.
Pawar exited the Democratic primary race for governor on Thursday — six months before the primary election — saying he couldn’t compete financially in what’s expected to be the most expensive gubernatorial race in the nation’s history.
It’s the latest reminder of the breakneck spending pace in the 2018 governor’s contest, an election that could cost more than a quarter-billion dollars when all the primary and general election spending is counted.
“We raised $828k from 2,526 donors; that is amazing. But as you know, the race for Illinois governor will set a record as the costliest race in American history,” Pawar said in a statement ending his campaign Thursday. “For democracy’s sake, I hope we see this as a troubling trend.”
Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said the most troubling aspect of the surge of self-funded, big money campaigns for marquee offices is that the spending tends to impact lower-level offices including mayoral contests and state legislative races. Those who aren’t personally wealthy or lack a mega-donor feel they can’t compete at any level.
“It’s not just that running for governor is inaccessible, the bigger problem is the trickle down effect —- people feel they can’t run for local offices,” Brune said.
In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, billionaire J.B. Pritzker has so far dominated party and union endorsements and has for months flooded the airwaves with ads.
Part of his appeal to Democrats is his personal fortune — Pritzker’s a candidate who can go toe-to-toe with incumbent GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner. Rauner, a multi-millionaire with some $70 million sitting in his campaign account, has the support of Ken Griffin, one of the wealthiest individuals in the world.
State and national party officials have predicted the primary and general elections could mean as much as $300 million in spending. That figure would eclipse the current record-holder for statewide office — the $280 million spent in the California governor’s race between former eBay executive Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown in 2010.
Pritzker gave his campaign another $7 million this week alone, for a total of $28.2 million since March. At one point, a breakdown of Pritzker’s numbers suggested he was spending the equivalent $120,000 a day of his own money.
By contrast, Pawar, a Chicago alderman who entered the race in January, raised just $828,000 in total — a respectable amount in most elections but just a drop in the bucket in the Illinois race.
That kind of money could once keep a candidate competitive for an election that’s still six months away. Today, it isn’t even enough to stay in the game.
Candidate Chris Kennedy, the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, was the first to break the state-imposed caps on campaign contributions by donating $250,000 to himself. Kennedy has since reported raising $2.75 million, with $500,000 coming from his personal donation.
Another Democratic candidate — state Sen. Daniel Biss — could be the outlier, even though he has in place the most traditional fundraising operation.
Biss raised $2.6 million and boasted that unlike Kennedy or Pritzker, he did not write himself a check to reach quarterly fundraising totals.
“Good candidates are being pushed out of races by big money and insiders,” Biss said in a statement Thursday. “If you care about democracy, this should be unacceptable.”