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No limit? Republican Gary Rabine ups the ante in high-stakes governor’s race

And while the trigger that Republican Gary Rabine tripped is designed to help other candidates in the race without personal fortunes, it also benefits Rabine, allowing him to accept contributions of any amount from other donors.

Republican candidate for governor, Gary Rabine, left, in March; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, in January.
Republican candidate for governor, Gary Rabine, left, last week; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, in January.
Anthony Vazquez; Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

SPRINGFIELD — Four years after the Illinois race for governor broke national records for self-financing candidates, next year’s contest is shaping up to be another duel of the deep pockets.

Millionaire businessman Gary Rabine notified state election officials over the weekend that he had donated enough of his own cash to his newly minted gubernatorial campaign to lift all fundraising caps on the race.

The $250,390.04 the suburban Republican has kicked in pales in comparison to the $35 million that Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker pumped into his own war chest last month.

But under Illinois’ arcane campaign finance laws, Rabine’s contributions triggered the lifting of the caps, because they were made within a year of the 2022 primary. Pritzker’s fell just outside that window.

And while the trigger that Rabine tripped is designed to help other candidates in the race without personal fortunes, it also benefits Rabine, allowing him to accept contributions of any amount from other donors — and sending a signal of its own.

“On the one hand, now his poker buddies can kick in a couple 100 grand apiece, and he can try to get somewhere close to what Pritzker’s got,” said Chris Mooney, a professor of Illinois state politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “On the other, he’s trying to scare people off in the Republican primary. He’s making the bet that he can get more rich people to donate to him than all the other candidates.”

Businessman Gary Rabine poses for a portrait at Rabine Group offices in Schaumburg last week.
Businessman Gary Rabine poses for a portrait at Rabine Group offices in Schaumburg last week.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

The caps were part of a series of reforms enacted after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office.

So that others in the race can fairly compete against uber-wealthy self-financing candidates, state law says once any gubernatorial hopeful kicks in more than $250,000, all candidates in the race — including the wealthy one — can accept donations of any amount.

Mooney calls the reforms a “paper tiger” and said the caps “are some of the loosest in the country, and that is by design.”

“The caps that do exist are easy to break, and then candidates can just loan their own campaign whatever the limit is for that particular office, and they break the cap, and then they can get as much money from big donors as they want,” he said.

And even though the $35 million that Pritzker contributed on March 12 didn’t lift the caps, it signaled that the billionaire hotel heir is preparing for another costly battle.

Pritzker spent a record-breaking $171.5 million in his 2018 bid for governor, breezing past Republican Meg Whitman, who set the previous self-financing record of $144 million in 2010 for her failed bid for California governor.

Gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker and his running mate, Julianna Stratton, celebrate their win in the Democratic primary in 2018.
Gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker and his running mate, Julianna Stratton, celebrate their win in the Democratic primary in 2018.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Rabine is not signaling any plans to challenge those records.

A campaign spokesman has said the Bull Valley businessman is willing to spend up to a million dollars of his own money.

When he launched his bid for governor last week, Rabine had donated $250,000 to his campaign, but decided to donate another $390.04 last week. That removed all caps from the race and allowed Rabine and his opponents to court big checks from wealthy donors throughout the campaign.

“I’m self-funding a very small part of our overall campaign budget to get things off the ground,” Rabine said in a statement Monday. “I’ve made a lot of friends in Illinois and across the country over the years. I’m confident people are willing to invest significant financial resources to support my vision to cut property taxes, create thousands of jobs, and serve Illinois families.”

Republican businessman Gary Rabine launches his gubernatorial run in Schaumburg in March.
Republican businessman Gary Rabine speaks to supporters as he launches his gubernatorial run at Rabine Group offices at 900 National Parkway in Schaumburg last week.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Whether Rabine’s move leads to big bucks from big donors remains to be seen. But so far, it’s not scaring off any of his GOP rivals.

State Sen. Darren Bailey said he’s “outraised every Republican in this race so far.” According to state election filings, the Republican hopeful from downstate Xenia has raised $503,714.29, just short of double Rabine’s $278,390.04 total.

“We all know no one spends money better than Governor Pritzker, and it’s going to take a lot of work, not just money to win,” Bailey said in a statement. “My campaign is building a grassroots movement to fight for working Illinoisans. We’ve had thousands of people join us across the state who are tired of high taxes and out-of-control spending — people who feel forgotten by political elites and country club politicians, and they want change.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, left; former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, right.
State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, left; former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, right.
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“We have been traveling across the state meeting voters face to face, and I can guarantee no one in this race will outwork me and we will fire Pritzker next November.”

The third announced candidate, former state Sen. Paul Schimpf of Waterloo, has raised $179,529, calling the sum “tremendous” in a statement and saying he will “not have to rely on self-funding” to win.