Irvin has questions to answer to win GOP gubernatorial primary

Is a billionaire-backed mayor who votes as a Democrat the favorite to win the Republican nomination for governor?

You read that right. Illinois’ richest person, hedge fund executive Ken Griffin, has been in a war of words of sorts with fellow billionaire and Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker. Griffin has promised to do everything he can to defeat Pritzker, and that appears to be manifesting itself in writing big checks to elect a potential slate of GOP candidates.

Griffin’s team has plausible deniability, claiming the billionaire has not spoken with any candidates or made any financial commitments. But he’s being advised by longtime GOP operative Mike Zolnierowicz, known in Republican circles as “Mike Z,” a former aide to Gov. Bruce Rauner and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk.

(A disclosure: I worked under Mike Z when he was campaign manager and I was communications director on U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis’ first race in 2012. Mike Z has not spoken with me or responded to text messages in my reporting on the GOP race for governor.)

Seemingly, Z and Griffin were not happy with the Republican field for governor, with firebrand southern Illinois state Sen. Darren Bailey the perceived frontrunner in a weak field. No honest observers give Bailey a chance in the general election, especially with the financial firepower the Pritzker campaign will bring to the fall campaign.

They have persuaded second-term Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin to jump in the GOP race for governor. He announced on Jan. 17. Irvin is paired with 29-year-old downstate state Rep. Avery Bourne for lieutenant governor. Bourne is considered a rising star in the GOP.

Irvin has some positives. He’s proven, elected twice as mayor of the second largest city in the state, and would come to a general election race without a long track record on state or social issues.

But in a Republican primary, Irvin will have to answer for the fact that in the last six partisan primaries, he has pulled Democratic ballots five times. The only time he pulled a GOP ballot was in 2018, when Rauner had a challenge from the right.

In a Republican electorate that has sold its soul to all things Trump, Irvin would have a lot of answering to do voting for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the 2016 and 2020 primaries.

Neither major political party in Illinois has ever nominated a Black candidate for governor. The closest was Roland Burris, who finished second in Democratic primaries twice and third in another. It’s a smart move for the GOP to reach out to Black voters that have voted consistently for Democrats at a 90% or greater clip in recent years.

But getting through a primary would be the first trick, and even with Griffin’s piggy bank, it’s not guaranteed Irvin would win a GOP primary filled with underfunded competition. In 2014, Rauner vastly outspent his opponents and barely squeaked by in the primary. In 2010, Andy McKenna piled cash into his race for governor and finished third in the primary.

Irvin’s campaign rollout was a beautiful video telling the story of his great-grandfather, who was born a slave. He details his rise from a kid in public housing to the Army, attending college via the GI Bill, and becoming mayor of the state’s second-largest city. But he fell back on many tired Republican talking points and tropes that have failed GOP candidates statewide in recent years. Interestingly, he seemed to recant previous statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

Now the trick for Irvin is threading the needle to survive a more conservative GOP primary electorate without disqualifying himself to moderate suburban general election voters in the process. Griffin’s money will help, but it won’t solve everything.

GOP primaries are often more of a purity test than a competition laying out policy ideas or a plan for governing. Even with a financial advantage, it’s hard to know how the Black Democrat-voting suburban mayor plays for Republican votes, especially downstate.

• Patrick Pfingsten is a former award-winning journalist and longtime Republican strategist who writes The Illinoize statewide political newsletter. You can read more at or contact him at