Chalk up another loss on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s political scoreboard.
The latest defeat — backing the losing candidate in the race to succeed Mike Madigan as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois — has some on the sidelines questioning whether the billionaire governor is headed for a game-ending loss next year.
“It’s nice to have money, but you’ve got to make that money work for you, and you have to get some wins,” said one Illinois Democrat, who asked to remain anonymous. “He needed that win [Wednesday] night. … That never would have happened on Madigan’s watch.”
Pritzker hasn’t officially said whether he’s seeking reelection, but some Democrats see the losses, namely the thwarted move to a graduated income tax and last week’s defeat, as troubling signs as he potentially gears up for a bid for a second term.
But the real game changer, of course, could be COVID-19 — and whether the governor’s response is seen as a grand slam or the final out.
The latest political hit for the governor came Wednesday, when U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly was narrowly elected Illinois Democratic chair by the 36 men and women who make up the state party’s central committee, beating Ald. Michelle Harris, 51.7% to 48.3%.
Pritzker backed the South Side alderman, and committee members said he personally lobbied on her behalf.
“I’m not going to pull any punches and say it felt good — it’s disappointing,” said Quentin Fulks, the head of Pritzker’s political operation. “We had a preferred candidate, and they didn’t win, but at the end of the day, we are all Democrats, and the party did end up with a Black woman as chair, and we are looking forward to a successful 2022 and electing Democrats up and down the ballot all across the state.”
Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who also backed Harris, are both expected to be at the top of that 2022 ballot.
The loss comes just months after voters soundly rejected Pritzker’s “Fair Tax” in November. That followed the governor’s candidate for state Senate president, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, falling short in her bid for the leadership position.
Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said the graduated income tax defeat was a “serious loss” in terms of policy priorities — Pritzker threw $58 million of his own fortune behind the referendum, and legislators passed a budget that included revenues from the failed initiative.
Those losses made Pritzker “look like someone who didn’t have his finger on the pulse” and who “doesn’t have as firm a control over his own party as much as he’d like.”
But while voters might remember the “Fair Tax” next year, the political family fight over the party’s leadership won’t be a key factor in 2022, Gaines said, beyond leaving the governor “sort of looking clumsy” in picking political fights he doesn’t win.
“[Voters] might think, ‘Well, he’s not as firmly in control as he thinks,’” Gaines said. “But this doesn’t strike me as a general election issue the way the ‘Fair Tax’ may well be. ‘He tried to raise your taxes and failed. He’ll do it again if you give him another term’ — I could easily imagine a campaign on that.”
One Democratic consultant said the Wednesday loss is “less consequential in the grand scheme of things,” but Pritzker needs something to run on.
“Right now, all he’s got is, ‘I’ve got us through COVID,’ which is a bit of a mixed bag,” the consultant said. “They’ve got to fix the equity issues with the cannabis bill, they’ve got to get a budget passed. … They’ve got to have something to run on. … The vaccination rollout is pretty key for him, but that’s not a win, that’s not a legislative victory.”
Fulks pushed back, saying “the governor has been laser focused on containing COVID-19, strengthening our economy and responsibly running the state, to say he doesn’t have anything to run on is just political hyperbole.”
Pritzker did start out his first term with a string of legislative victories, including the legalization of recreational marijuana, the passage of a massive expansion of gambling – including approval of the long-sought Chicago casino — and an infrastructure package.
But former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar said the key issue is Pritzker’s handling of the coronavirus.
“The trouble sometimes I found was you can win nine things, but if you lost the tenth thing, people remember the last thing,” Edgar said. “There’s a lot of things that are going to happen between now and election time, but nothing’s probably going to be as big as the virus and how people perceive he dealt with that.
“I would say that’s his biggest challenge — much more than the state party chairman or the referendum on the tax.”
Political scientist John Jackson said Pritzker’s “take charge” response to COVID — could be a “huge asset” to him among Democrats in a potential re-election bid.
“The governor has been out front and has been a model, for handling the state’s response to COVID,” said Jackson, a professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University. “He’s got critics, and there are some points that one could quarrel with — and people do — but overall, he’s been a take charge guy, and has been out there every day — forever — with Dr. [Ngozi] Ezike and ... the local health departments.”
Gaines agreed that COVID will be “a top issue” during a re-election battle — particularly whether schools have reopened — but he argues the governor’s political record is also important.
“Anything that suggests he’s not reading the public or doesn’t have as much input with the party as he’d like, I think is damaging,” the professor said. “Incumbents are notoriously risk averse and worried about looking weak, rather than strong … and you don’t want to have visible losses.”