After four years that included maneuvering through the COVID-19 pandemic, the legalization of cannabis and a statewide expansion of gambling, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker won reelection on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.
Pritzker was facing Republican state lawmaker Darren Bailey in a contest that The AP called for Pritzker seconds after the polls closed.
“I’m grateful tonight,” Pritzker said in Chicago. “Illinois continues a long tradition of peaceful and fair elections and I am so thrilled to spend four more years as your governor. I won’t let you down.”
Earlier, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said, “we have once again prevailed. We celebrate, and we declare — we still have a voice. And we are not yet done making our voices heard.”
With 78% of the votes counted, Pritzker had 2,039,918 votes, or 55% of the vote, to Bailey’s 1,565,560 votes, or 42%, according to unofficial vote totals.
Throughout the campaign, Pritzker hit on the financial gains his first four years brought, along with a slate of changes to the state’s criminal code. He also promoted his support for abortion rights in Illinois after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year overturned the Roe vs. Wade decision.
Bailey hit on corruption at the state level, rising crime, mainly in Chicago, and the state’s education system. Bailey also has brought focus to the state’s abortion policies, which while maintaining he couldn’t change them, stuck to calling them “extreme.”
Pritzker, a 57-year-old billionaire and heir to the Hyatt Hotel chain, was elected in 2018 after he beat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
In Pritizker’s first four years, Illinois received six credit upgrades, which the state had not seen for more than 20 years. Despite the increases, Illinois still has the worst credit rating of any state, according to the S&P Global ratings.
He also signed a $46-billion budget plan in April, which gave the state its second straight budget surplus. It was also the fourth balanced budget Pritzker passed in his term, and was helped with federal funds and revenue windfalls that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“(Federal dollars) certainly helped Pritzker,” said John T. Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “These have been pretty solid economic times in Illinois.”
In 2019 and 2020, Pritzker pushed for a graduated income tax, but the measure failed. It had been a key point in his first run for governor.
Shaw said through that effort, Pritzker hoped to reshape Illinois’ finances fundamentally, but came up short.
University of Illinois Political Science professor Christopher Mooney said that under Pritzker, the state is much better off financially than it has been in recent decades.
“We’re by no means a pillar of financial rectitude, but we’re better,” he said.
To help the state’s financial woes, Pritzker fulfilled one of his campaign promises in 2019 after he signed into law a bill legalizing recreational marijuana, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
The marijuana industry quickly bloomed into a large money-maker for both the state and local municipalities that have pot-related businesses. Last year, the industry was just shy of hitting $1 billion in total revenue across the state.
This year, it’s on track to exceed that, with customers on pace to buy about $4.5 million more marijuana-related items compared with last year, as of August. This is coupled with the state issuing more marijuana licenses this year, too.
To help plug budget holes, Pritzker expanded gambling in the state, which last year brought in nearly $2 billion in revenue.
Pritzker also steered the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Illinois ranks 21st in terms of states with the lowest deaths per 100,000 people, according to data from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention. It ranks 28th in cases under the same criteria.
Throughout the pandemic, Illinois had some of the stricter restrictions in the country when it came to masks, quarantine and social gatherings, which drew the ire from many, including Bailey, who sued the state for its masking policy in 2020.
Fighting statehouse corruption is something Reform for Illinois, a nonprofit organization with goals of fighting corruption and reforming campaign finance, said Pritzker “has talked a big game on but has not kept his promises,” Executive Director Alisa Kaplan said.
“With one scandal after the other rocking Springfield and trust in state government being among the lowest in the nation, we expected more,” Kaplan said in an email. “And the governor told reporters he ‘wanted more,’ but he didn’t actually demand more.”
Bailey, 56, is a farmer from Downstate Xenia who has sued the state for mask requirements and suggested Chicago be removed from the state. He opted to run for governor after having served one term each in the Illinois House and the Illinois Senate.
Bailey, who had the support of former President Donald Trump, emerged from a crowded Republican primary field to win the nomination in June. He campaigned on promises of ridding the state of corruption and rejecting the moderate wing of the party, including at times taking aim at Rauner for not being conservative enough.
Slogans centered around firing Pritzker, and bringing a farmer’s touch to the office, were popular in Bailey’s campaign. He consistently said he wanted to make Illinois more business-friendly, reduce crime and help education.
Bailey also has been an ardent supporter of less restrictive gun regulation, while Pritzker has said he’d like to ban semi-automatic rifles.
Despite receiving an endorsement from Trump before the primary vote, Bailey later seemed to not fully embrace the former president after winning the GOP nomination.
Those who opposed Bailey frequently brought up his affiliation and past comments concerning Trump, mainly in attack ads. This includes comments he made at a rally in June where he asked the crowd who’s ready to “support a president” that will take back the country, and describing a promise to Trump that in 2024, “Illinois will roll out the red carpet for him because Illinois will be ready for President Trump.”
Appealing to Trump in the primary is a good strategy, but doesn’t help win the general election, Shaw said. He described the balance of appealing to the Republican base and then appealing to moderates and Democrats in Illinois as a form of “pick your poison.”
“Illinois is a blue state,” Shaw said. “The Republican Party has been in the wilderness for a long time, and it doesn’t quite know how to get out of it.”
Pritzker also pledged to “fully reopen the economy,” hitting on regulations, taxes and crime as the reason why businesses have avoided the state in the past.
Shaw said Illinois’ business climate has improved some under Pritzker, but called Bailey’s stance that of “most Republicans,” keeping to rhetoric about government getting too big. He said Bailey has not been “overly specific” on how he might change that.
While Bailey was critical of Pritzker’s handling of corruption, Kaplan said Bailey has presented no plan either, except for offering term limits, which she said could make it worse in some instances.
“Illinois Republicans, who would actually benefit from campaign finance reform given their huge disadvantage in fundraising, seem to be even more hostile to it than the Democrats,” she said. “Republicans do have their own billionaires and mega donors after all.
Mooney didn’t shy away from criticizing Bailey as an overall candidate, calling him “an embarrassment” to the Republican Party, in terms of his “lack of preparation, lack of understanding, his lack of knowledge of anything.” Bailey being the nominee signifies they’ve “basically given up,” he said.
“I’m sure he knows how to grow food, but other than that he clearly doesn’t understand the state, the government or the people of the state,” he said.
The Daily Herald and Associated Press reporter John O’Connor contributed to this article.