The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of North by Northwestern's editorial board.
Editor's note: This author, who is a news editor for North by Northwestern, has previously worked on the Daniel Biss gubernatorial campaign.
This is the story of $100,000. Enough money to pay off your student loans in one fell swoop. Enough to buy a Tesla, or even a small house in some rural part of Iowa. With $100,000, I could afford to pay my rent for more than a decade.
And in the past few months, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Illinois governor is spending an average of more than $100,000 on his campaign every day.
The 2018 gubernatorial election is over a year away, but candidates for the Democratic primary nomination have been fiercely campaigning across the state for almost six months now. Among them include Evanston’s state senator, Daniel Biss, as well as Chris Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, and J.B. Pritzker, the famous Illinois venture capitalist and aforementioned $100,000-per-day campaign spender.
The Illinois governor’s race is predicted to be the most expensive state election in U.S. history, with a total estimated cost of over $300 million. The reason for this mammoth expense lies partially with the incumbent; current Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, a billionaire who left the world of private equity to become governor in 2014, has amassed $70 million for his re-election thus far.
Pritzker’s appeal is enticing in its straightforwardness: to defeat an opponent with limitless funds, why not nominate your own billionaire candidate? The promise of an entirely self-funded campaign has been central to Pritzker’s bid thus far – he has so far donated more than $21 million to his own campaign, with eight months to go until the Democratic primary in March.
This tactic, however, is catastrophic for the vision of a democracy that is fair, accessible, and that allows the best and most qualified candidates to rise to the top in public favorability. Pritzker has never held public office; apart from his role as former chairman of the Illinois Human Rights Commission, most of his public service has been in the form of philanthropy. Yet his competitors are inevitably struggling to gain state-wide recognition against a candidate who could afford to buy every registered voter in Illinois a TV just to watch his barrage of advertisements if he wanted to.
The appeal of ultra-wealthy, self-funding candidates has gained obvious appeal at the national level. Self-funding was a core selling point of President Trump’s campaign, though he ended up only doing so through the end of the Republican primary. Trump’s election seems to have sent a message to other wealthy and famous individuals that high-level offices are within their reach despite a lack of government experience, as evidenced by Kid Rock’s possible Senate campaign and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s clear flirtations with a presidential run in 2020.
This kind of exorbitant spending on state-level campaigns, especially so early in the primary, serves the tactical purpose of setting the bar for financial viability so high as to blow all other candidates out of the water before they have the chance to get their message across. I can’t blame JB Pritzker for wanting to use the incredible resources available to him, but I can and do question his inability to see how his tactics could set a precedent by which only ultra-wealthy candidates are seen as viable in Illinois elections. And the defense that this level of spending is necessary to match Rauner’s funds is faulty; Rauner is one of the most unpopular governors in the country, and loses to a generic Democrat by 12 percentage points in a poll commissioned by the Democratic Governors Association in July.
I have met J.B. Pritzker. I believe that he genuinely wishes to make Illinois a more just and equitable state, and against Bruce Rauner, I would be glad to support him in the general election bid should he be nominated. But, at least in this election, his six-figure daily spending is part of a broader pattern of our democracy being put behind a pay-wall intended to keep out other, potentially better-suited candidates.
There’s nothing that anyone can do to stop Pritzker and other billionaire non-politicians like him from running for high-level political office, nor should there be – it is, after all, a free country. But we have the power to tell the Pritzkers, Rauners, Trumps, and Zuckerbergs of the world that neither they, nor their fortunes, should represent us in government. Other gubernatorial campaigns, such as that of Daniel Biss (for whom I interned this summer), have focused the majority of their fundraising and outreach efforts on attracting small donations and support. These efforts have proven successful so far; in the second fundraising quarter, Biss raised more than $1 million through his grassroots strategy, outraising the wealthy and well-connected Chris Kennedy by almost $300,000. This shift towards a more populist financing system has found some success in national politics, with candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul collecting remarkable sums in small donations, allowing them to run competitive campaigns even in the big-money dominated political landscape in the years following the Citizens United campaign donation ruling.
If we don’t want to see self-funding billionaire candidates continue to outspend their way into office, it’s on us to support small-donor funded grassroots campaigns with our time, our spare dollars and ultimately, our votes. The hard work of supporting people-powered campaigns at the local level lacks the allure and convenience of a billionaire candidate with limitless resources of his own – but it needs to be done for us to move our democratic process out from behind the pay-wall and into an accessible future.