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Did the Illinois Gubernatorial “Battle of the Billionaires” Just End?

The state’s tenth-richest guy was up—sort of—against the state’s richest guy. Then the richest guy moved to Florida. What now?

Ken Griffin
Patrick Fallon/Getty Images
Aspiring Illinois kingmaker Ken Griffin speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California.

Until this week, the most broke state in the country (S&P credit rating: BBB positive) was on track to host a “battle of the billionaires,” the most expensive governor’s race in history. Now, with the Illinois Republican primary scheduled for next Tuesday, the GOP billionaire may be dropping out.

Democrat J.B. Pritzker’s 2018 victory over Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner set the record for the most money raised (though not spent) on a governor’s race. Pritzker is very rich. He’s an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune (estimated net worth: $3.6 billion), the richest politician in the United States, and the tenth-richest person in the state of Illinois.

Now Pritzker is running for reelection in a rematch (of sorts) against the wildly successful hedge fund manager Ken Griffin (estimated net worth: $27.2 billion), the single richest person in the state of Illinois and, nationally, the GOP’s second-biggest Super PAC contributor. But on Thursday, Griffin announced abruptly that he was moving to Miami.

Am I telling you that a Republican candidate for governor is leaving the state? Not exactly. Griffin isn’t himself running for governor. He has people to do that sort of thing for him. At the end of last year, Griffin tapped Richard Irvin on the shoulder and informed him he’d be running for governor. Irvin is the Republican mayor of Aurora, Illinois, a city of fewer than 200,000 situated an hour and a half west of Chicago. The common presumption instantly became that Irvin would win the GOP primary, to be held June 28, and maybe even win the election. Griffin gave Irvin $55 million, no small sum for a primary race. It was more than twice what Griffin spent trying to reelect Rauner in 2018. (That’s the sense in which 2022 was shaping up to be a Pritzker-Griffin rematch.)

Irvin did indeed become the front-runner to challenge Pritzker in November. But earlier this month, Irvin lost his lead to State Senator Darren Bailey, a Trump-friendly wingnut branded “too conservative for Illinois” in ads funded by the Democratic Governors Association. Karl Rove identified this (probably correctly) as a sneaky backhanded compliment meant to promote Bailey among Republicans on the theory that he’ll be easier than Irvin to defeat in November. Also damaging to Irvin were unconfirmed reports that Trump (another billionaire!) will endorse Bailey this Saturday, along with a reported backlash against Griffin’s not-too-subtle bid to buy Irvin the nomination.

Fifty-five million bucks will buy an awful lot, but it didn’t buy Griffin sufficient due diligence on Irvin’s record as Aurora mayor, which turned out to include assorted colorful scandals. The most piquant of these was a police report that said Hizzoner, after his then-girlfriend hit a security guard in a marijuana store, told his beloved that the charges would be taken care of. Irvin later conceded that he may have said such a thing but insisted that his words were misinterpreted. Irvin was also reported last month, by Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune, to be a clumsy flip-flopper on gun control, abortion, mask mandates, and Black Lives Matter (Irvin is African American). “Irvin’s campaign staff,” Pearson wrote, “is keeping him to a tight script with little public or media interaction and few direct answers to questions about Republican politics or issues of the day.”

Irvin may yet scratch out a victory on Tuesday. But if the campaign’s internal polling gave Irvin a ghost of a chance, would Griffin time his announced departure from the Prairie State five days before the primary? “Ken continues to believe Richard Irvin is the best candidate for governor of Illinois,” a Griffin spokesperson said Thursday. But Griffin has already voted with his feet. The four-story penthouse condominium in Chicago that he purchased in 2017 for $58.75 million is being put up for sale.

The 2022 election has actually been not Griffin’s second face-off with Pritzker but his third. The second, in 2020, was over whether Illinois should have a progressive income tax. The reason Illinois is broke is that its state pension obligations exceed available funds by $140 billion, a problem dating back to the 1990s. To address the problem equitably, Pritzker proposed changing the state’s flat income tax of about 5 percent to a modestly progressive tax that rose to about 8 percent. Pritzker shepherded the required amendment to the state constitution through the state legislature. That placed it on the ballot for ratification. Pritzker spent $58 million to pass the progressive state income tax. Griffin spent about as much to kill it. When the votes were counted, Pritzker’s tax reform failed, 47–53.

Griffin is moving to Florida and moving his company, Citadel Securities, to Florida, partly because he’s fed up with crime in Chicago. “Chicago is like Afghanistan on a good day,” he said in a speech last October to the Chicago Economic Club. “And that’s a problem.” He blamed Pritzker. The recall earlier this month of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin suggests crime may be a difficult issue for Democrats in November. Irvin, a former prosecutor, made crime the central issue of his primary campaign, with one campaign spot showing him riding shotgun in a police car. “Defund the police? Ludicrous,” Irvin said. “All lives matter.” In a February interview with the Illinois Better Government Association, Griffin cited crime first among the reasons he selected Irvin for this assignment.

But according to The Wall Street Journal, murders in Chicago are down 11 percent compared to a year ago. Burglaries are up, but that increase is actually higher in Miami (73 percent) than in Chicago (31 percent). Don’t hold your breath waiting for Griffin to blame Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Griffin is DeSantis’s biggest backer. (In fairness, Miami’s murder rate has dropped more than three times as much as Chicago’s.)

Will Griffin keep spending after the Illinois primary to defeat Pritzker? Yeah, maybe. But if Irvin loses, it’s doubtful Griffin will spend anything like as much as he originally planned. Griffin has signaled he’s fed up with Trump (last year he called Trump “pointlessly divisive”) and that he won’t support Trump if he runs again in 2024. That suggests he can’t likely work up much enthusiasm for Trump fanboy Bailey.

Then there’s, well, the money. Griffin is eight times richer than Pritzker, but in 2018 Pritzker spent $165 million to Griffin’s $22.5 million. This year, Pritzker’s pledged $125 million with the general election still five months away. Griffin is probably out $55 million on Irvin. If a smart hedge manager knows anything, it’s how to hedge his bets. There are many other midterm candidates after Griffin’s cash, candidates with better chances of winning, and Griffin surely knows that. Griffin’s relocation to Florida (where he will also be the richest person in the state) is extremely good news for DeSantis. Very likely, it’s good news for Pritzker too.