If you thought the days of billionaires running for office were over, think again.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Democrats are struggling to figure out what their future holds. Interestingly, the party establishment’s vision for its future seems to look a lot like the Republican Party today, with rich donors lining up to run for governor in three key states in 2018—outsider candidacies that resemble Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign. After Hillary Clinton almost doubled Trump in spending but still lost the White House, some Democratic donors felt as if their money had been set on fire. These wealthy donors may very well be thinking that if Trump could win the presidency, then perhaps there is a chance for Democratic billionaires to win on the state level.
Although this strategy may seem hypocritical and out of step with the working-class direction Bernie Sanders wants to take the Democratic Party after the wreckage of the 2016 election, it might not be that crazy. One of the few success stories that Democrats had in 2016 was in West Virginia, where they continued the state’s trend of electing Democratic governors by electing Jim Justice, a Democratic billionaire and successful coal baron. There are three states where it seems that similar Democratic billionaires will run for statewide office in upcoming elections: California, Florida, and Illinois.
Once dominated by older Democrats in their seventies and eighties, California is slowly seeing some generational turnover. Kamala Harris was just elected to replace Barbara Boxer as senator, and Jerry Brown (who was the first elected governor to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1974) is not running for re-election in 2018. This leaves the door wide open for Tom Steyer, the single largest individual contributor to candidates in the 2016 cycle, who invested millions of dollars on behalf of Democrats across the country, including himself. The longtime philanthropist and environmentalist launched his own ads supporting a tobacco tax increase (despite his millions invested in tobacco companies) and starred in his own Spanish-language ad attacking Trump. Since statewide offices seemingly only open up once in a blue moon in California, Steyer will have his work cut out for him to boost his name recognition over what is sure to be a massive field. Indeed, such an opening is so prized amongst California Democrats that the current lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, has been running for governor since 2015.
The Sunshine State was a complete disaster for Democrats in 2016, with their only success being Charlie Crist’s election to Congress. In 2018, Democratic senator Bill Nelson will be up for reelection, and Republican governor Rick Scott will be term-limited out of office, so both parties will have at least one major potential pickup opportunity. Democratic billionaire donor John Morgan is considering a run for governor. Morgan is known for his law firm’s website, ForThePeople.com, and will enter the race with at least some name recognition outside donor circles due to the firm’s popular ads, which tout him as “the bullies’ bully” and “the people’s lawyer.
However, Morgan faces several challenges. He was at the forefront of funding Florida’s medical marijuana referendum, which passed overwhelmingly. This put him at odds with former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, as well as the popular Polk County sheriff Grady Judd, whom Morgan was filmed cursing at in a bar. As in California, this primary is sure to be competitive, but Morgan looks to be in a better starting position than Steyer, at least for now.
Governor Bruce Rauner won election in 2014 as a rich outsider who promised shake up Springfield, and billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker might be looking to emulate Rauner’s success. Pritzker’s supporters are seeking to channel Rauner’s strengths, with his advocates arguing that his “outside leadership and perspective can be helpful.”
The Pritzker family is one of Illinois’s top donors, and J.B. Pritzker is one of Chicago’s top political fundraisers and donated millions of dollars to Clinton’s campaign. Republicans are already preparing for a Pritzker challenge. The Illinois GOP has already come out with a robocall sent to “Democratic donors, elected officials and party activists” that goes after Pritzker for his past ties to impeached governor Rod Blagojevich, for whom he was “a top fundraiser.” In the robocalls, Blagojevich is heard saying, “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.”
Unlike Steyer and Morgan, Pritzker has previously run for office, and his wealth was not enough. He campaigned for an open House seat but fell to Jan Schakowsky in the primary despite spending more than $1 million of his own money. Money matters in campaigns, but it is far from everything.
Interestingly, Illinois might be shaping up to have a primary between a Pritzker and a Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy’s son, Chris, is hiring staff to prepare for what seems to be an inevitable gubernatorial campaign. He has also met with Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan to discuss his potential candidacy, although he did not want to talk about the conversation with reporters. However, Kennedy has flirted with running for office in the past. In 2009, a source told reporters that there was an “85 percent chance” he would run for the Senate seat vacated by Obama, but he ultimately never went through with that. At the Democratic National Convention, he “literally ran away from reporters,” an unpromising sign from a potential candidate.
Illinois’s primary has seen fewer Democratic contenders express interest than California’s or Florida’s, but it is all but certain that Pritzker and Kennedy will have some company. Former governor Pat Quinn, who lost decisively to Rauner in 2014, is even considering a comeback bid. A fight between the Pritzkers and the Kennedys will be one to watch, and Rauner will certainly enjoy sitting back and watching the fireworks.
As Democrats ponder their future, these three races will offer some insight into whether their loathed “billionaire class” will move from simply donating to candidates to being candidates themselves. While these campaigns certainly will not lack funding, Democrats have also learned that outspending opponents is no guarantee of success if the candidate is not appealing to voters.
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