Democrat J.B. Pritzker isn’t officially running for governor, but that didn’t stop the Illinois Republican Party from going after him Tuesday, launching automated robo-calls linking the Chicago venture capitalist and philanthropist to imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The recorded call was sent to Democratic donors, elected officials and party activists. And the GOP said it will continue to highlight Pritzker’s “ties” to both Blagojevich and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan until he makes an official decision to run.
The Sun-Times in November reported that Democratic leaders had approached Pritzker about a run for governor in 2018. He is mulling it over, but hasn’t officially entered the ring.
Some see Pritzker — his net worth estimated at $3.4 billion — as a strong self-funded challenger to Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Pritzker this year contributed $14 million to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and related Democratic organizations, and he raised millions to become Clinton’s top fundraiser.
The robo-call the state GOP released on Tuesday included FBI tapes of Blagojevich talking about Pritzker and a narrator dubbing Pritzker “just another Madigan political insider.”
The nearly one-minute call includes FBI audio of Blagojevich speaking with former aide Doug Scofield in 2008 about trying to sell President Obama’s former Senate seat. Caught on a wiretap, Blagojevich also asked what Cabinet position he could get in exchange for getting Valerie Jarett to the Senate seat, his trial revealed.
“I bet you J.B. can raise me money like that. If I can get J.B. to do something like that is it worth giving him the Senate seat? Incidentally, he, he asked me for it. Don’t repeat that,” Blagojevich says on the tape, which was used as part of his trial. He wound up being sentenced in 2011 to 14 years in prison.
A narrator on the robocall calls Pritzker “just another crooked insider who seeks to screw over Illinois taxpayers” while also trying to link him to Madigan.
A Pritzker spokesman dismissed the attack, while urging the Rauner as the Party’s head to stop campaigning.
“You would think a governor who has failed to pass a budget for two years and has allowed human services to be gutted would have better things to do with his time than to dredge up the delusional rantings of Rod Blagojevich,” Dave Lundy said in a statement. “It’s time to stop campaigning and start governing.”
The party shot back at that comment and included newspaper clips of Pritzker’s role in Blagojevich’s campaign — he was a top fundraiser.
“Pritzker is attempting to whitewash history by calling his dealmaking with disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich ‘crazy rantings.’ The truth is that J.B. Pritzker and his family have a decades-long record of cutting deals with Rod Blagojevich and bankrolling his campaigns, while subsequently facing subpoenas from a federal grand jury,” Illinois Republican Party spokesman Aaron DeGrott said in a statement.
Many are questioning the unusual timing of the attacks — prior to official announcements to run. Democratic political strategist Pete Giangreco said links to Blagojevich by the party didn’t work in Democrat Tammy Duckworth’s successful run for Republican Mark Kirk’s U.S. Senate seat.
“I frankly think the Republicans are scared to death of J.B. Pritzker, and I think that they made up this fake narrative with Blagojevich because that’s what they do whenever they can’t beat somebody,” Giangreco said. “They tried the Blagojevich attacks on Tammy Duckworth, and she beat Mark Kirk by the largest margin that any incumbent senator has been beat by in Illinois since World War II. So if they want to keep talking about Blagojevich, keep going because we’ll keep beating them by record margins.”
The Republicans also targeted Democrat Chris Kennedy last week, criticizing his contributions to a super PAC to support Illinois House Democrats in their November campaigns. Kennedy, former chairman of the University of Illinois board of trustees and son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, is also considering a run for governor.
An advisor to Kennedy called the attacks on both Kennedy and Pritzker a distraction from the GOP’s record.
“It’s telling that the Illinois Republican Party and Bruce Rauner are going to be afraid to run on their record of having decimated our state,” the advisor said. “I think that is telling as to why they’re engaging in this kind of back and forth and digging things up. I think they should focus on their record at the end of the day, not talking about something that happened 10 years ago. Give me a break.”