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Illinois primary 2018: J.B. Pritzker wins the Democratic primary for governor

Pritzker will face embattled incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner in the fall.

Clinton Global Initiative America Meetings Begin In Chicago Scott Olson/Getty Images

Venture capitalist and entrepreneur J.B. Pritzker emerged from a packed field of six candidates to win the Illinois Democratic primary for governor. Pritzker will face embattled Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in November.

The race was called around 9:30 pm by the Associated Press. Pritzker defeated two serious candidates — progressive state Sen. Daniel Biss and developer Chris Kennedy (the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s son). But even with a competitive primary, the billionaire ultimately came out on top, after spending nearly $70 million of his own money on the race.

Pritzker has been upfront about his vast wealth. “This race isn’t about money; it’s about values, it’s about the values of social and economic justice and inclusion,” he told Vox. “What voters want is someone who’s going to fight for them.”

But he hasn’t been as upfront about the details surrounding his wealth. A recent Chicago Tribune investigation found Pritzker and his brother Anthony Pritzker own several offshore shell companies and trusts where their money is stored. Those companies, combined with Pritzker’s decision to release nothing but the first two pages of his personal income tax returns, have raised questions of whether the billionaire candidate is avoiding taxes as he advocates for a progressive income tax. (Pritzker told the Tribune the trusts are only for charitable contributions.)

Things got particularly nasty in the last weeks of the Democratic primary, with Pritzker’s competitors openly calling him a “liar” and a “fraud.”

Pritzker shrugged off the attacks in a recent interview.

“It’s a spirited competition in this race, but I think what the voters are looking for are the qualities of someone who can get big things done across the state and someone who’s got real experience creating jobs,” he said.

The Democratic candidate is building his campaign around getting Illinois out of its financial quagmire, in which it’s been embroiled for the past few years. In 2017, lawmakers finally passed the state’s first budget in two years, despite an attempted veto from Rauner.

Still, Illinois is starved for cash, and its financial outlook continues to be grim. Illinois owes more than $15 billion in unpaid bills and has a pension debt of more than a quarter-trillion dollars — the highest in the nation.

Pritzker’s vision for solving this is by introducing a progressive income tax, in which higher earners get taxed at a higher rate. Illinois currently has a constitutionally mandated flat tax, where residents are all taxed at the same rate, no matter their income. The progressive income tax concept is relatively new in the state, but voters are receptive, Pritzker told Vox.

“That never was an issue for a gubernatorial candidate to run on,” he said.

Taxes are at the top of Pritzker’s to-do list. From there, the candidate says, he will deal with other issues including lagging schools, health care, and job creation.

Pritzker will face an extremely unpopular incumbent Republican governor

To put it bluntly, Gov. Bruce Rauner is not well liked. He is among the least popular governors in the country and has a lower approval rating than President Donald Trump in a state Trump lost by more than 20 points.

This means that the Illinois governorship is, perhaps by far, the most likely gubernatorial pickup opportunity for Democrats this November. They desperately want to improve their numbers in state governments; Democrats control only 16 governors’ mansions around the country.

Rauner, first elected in the 2014 Republican wave, came in promising to reform the state’s corrupt political establishment, but his track record in Springfield hasn’t won him many fans.

That’s in large part due to the state’s severe financial crisis, which has been decades in the making. Illinois’s bond rating is hovering one level above “junk” status, and the state went two years without a budget before finally passing one with a significant tax hike last summer. November will undoubtedly be a race about stabilizing the state’s financial situation and breaking Illinois’s long history of corrupt leadership (four of the past seven governors have ended up in prison).

A bitter feud with the Democratic state House Speaker Michael “Boss” Madigan, the longest-serving member of any state or federal legislative body in US history — and arguably one of the most powerful politicians in the country — left the state without an annual budget for two years. To offset some of the debt, the state legislature’s budget included a 32 percent income tax hike — the highest in history — which Rauner has promised to roll back if reelected.

Talking to Pritzker before the primary, it was clear he’s been looking ahead to November for some time, spending much of his time on the trail attacking Rauner.

“[Rauner is] just not the right man for the job,” Pritzker told Vox. “He’s a guy who doesn’t understand the difference between business and government. People are feeling really let down by him.”