Where did billionaire Gov. Pritzker send campaign cash before Election Day?
Having already contributed $145 million to his reelection campaign, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker -- the wealthiest sitting politician in America -- shared his considerable personal fortune with other Democratic candidates and groups in the weeks before November's election.
Pritzker made at least $128,500 in political donations during the campaign's final month, state and federal records show.
His wife, M.K. Pritzker, made about $36,000 in campaign contributions in the same period.
Even more significantly, J.B. Pritzker's campaign committee -- which has been nearly entirely self-funded -- transferred more than $8 million to political organizations as Election Day approached.
The munificence is nothing new for Pritzker, said Natalie Edelstein, communications director for the JB for Governor campaign.
"Gov. Pritzker is committed to supporting Democrats and Democratic causes across all levels of government, and he has been actively engaged in bolstering the efforts of the Democratic Party for most of his life," Edelstein said. "As sinister anti-women and anti-worker forces work to take our state and nation backward, the governor will continue to fight back and protect the most vulnerable."
Not surprisingly, Illinois Republican Party Chair Don Tracy has a different take on Pritzker's donations.
"He has used his unearned billions to mislead the people of Illinois and to benefit himself and his allies in Springfield," Tracy said.
Pritzker's donations are detailed on the websites of the Illinois State Board of Elections and the Federal Election Commission.
A billionaire philanthropist whose family owns the Hyatt hotel chain, Pritzker defeated Republican Darren Bailey to win a second term in November. But his high-figure cash infusions in the contest preceded their showdown.
Pritzker tried to influence the GOP primary in Bailey's favor by giving millions to a group called the Democratic Governors Association that, in turn, made TV ads critical of the early front-runner, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, and painted Bailey as the more conservative candidate. The strategy helped build GOP support for Bailey, who didn't respond to interview requests for this story.
"Pritzker's billions gave him the ability to spend whatever he needed to reinforce Bailey's primary campaign," said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Once the race was down to Pritzker and Bailey, the governor's campaign committee vastly outspent his challenger's. In the fourth quarter alone, Pritzker's campaign disbursed nearly $38 million, while Team Bailey spent a relatively paltry $4.4 million.
Bailey received indirect support from Lake Forest billionaire Richard Uihlein, who gave millions to a pro-Bailey political action committee called People Who Play By the Rules. But it wasn't enough to overcome Pritzker's bankroll -- or, ultimately, to win over a majority of voters.
Where the cash went
By October, Pritzker apparently was confident enough he'd be victorious that he didn't give JB for Governor any more cash. Instead, he contributed to other campaigns and groups, including:
• State-level Democratic groups in California, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, South Dakota and Tennessee, which shared $20,125.
• A super PAC called Women Vote! that got $100,000.
• The successful campaign of first-time state House candidate Nabeela Syed of Inverness, which got $2,500.
Syed recalled Pritzker made the donation after they appeared together in Palatine.
"He didn't leave until he shook nearly every hand," she said. "I'm grateful that the governor could feel the excitement at that event about our campaign and wanted to support us."
Some of the donations were made using the name J.B. Pritzker, while others were made as Jay Pritzker or Jay Robert Pritzker. Some entries identify the donor as Illinois' governor, while others say he's a self-employed venture capitalist or the managing partner of the Pritzker Group investment firm.
All the records refer to the same man.
M.K. Pritzker made nearly $36,000 in political donations in October 2022 -- all to support Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan's reelection in New Hampshire.
The bulk of donations made in J.B. Pritzker's name in the month before Election Day -- about $8.7 million -- came from the JB for Governor committee, state records show.
Recipients included Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough's campaign, which got $10,000; a fund for Democratic state Senate candidates, which got $1 million; and the Democratic Party of Illinois, which got $7 million.
Team Pritzker also made donations of $500 to $55,000 to Democratic groups in the Elk Grove Township, Palatine, Schaumburg and Deerfield areas, among others.
State party Executive Director Ben Hardin said his group is grateful for the support it receives from Pritzker and other backers. Those funds helped Democrats keep majorities in the state House and Senate, capture every statewide elected office on the ballot, win seats on the state Supreme Court and in Congress, and reelect U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Hardin said.
With that momentum, the state party is working to ensure its candidates "have the resources they need to succeed in 2024 and beyond," he said.
Is reform needed?
When interviewed for a recent story about the Republican Uihlein's multimillion-dollar campaign donations, some high-profile suburban Democrats complained about wealthy donors using their money to sway elections and called for campaign finance reform.
Pritzker has supported reform, especially overturning the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which eliminated restrictions on independent political expenditures from special interests.
On the state level, Pritzker signed a 2021 law banning campaign contributions from out-of-state donors in Illinois judicial campaigns. The law also forbids judicial candidates from taking cash from any group that doesn't disclose its financial supporters, a type of political spending derided as "dark money."
But Keith Brin, chair of the Lake County Republicans, called Pritzker hypocritical on the issue. Despite promising campaign finance reform after first being elected in 2018, Pritzker uses his wealth "to influence elections and accumulate power," Brin said.
"And now he's working to not only get Democratic candidates elected using untold millions, but he's also trying to influence Republican primaries in order to handpick opponents," Brin said.
Pritzker may have a seemingly bottomless war chest, but he isn't invulnerable.
Tracy noted voters rejected Pritzker's graduated income tax proposal in 2020 even though the governor personally spent $58 million promoting it.
The billionaire funding the plan's opposition, Ken Griffin, donated nearly $54 million to the cause, records show.
"J.B. outspent the opposition, yet he was soundly defeated," Tracy said. "A candidate that has the right message and provides a winnable contrast has the capacity to raise sufficient resources to defeat a plutocrat billionaire."