June 01, 2023

In governor’s race, Illinois needs a leader who is focused on the people

In recent weeks, Gov. JB Pritzker has made Roe v. Wade his central message seemingly anytime he’s spoken. But in a state with more than 12 million people, one must wonder if he’s overplaying his hand on this issue with suburbanites, moderates and independents. And is there more to the story?

In an early June survey by Republican polling firm Ogden & Fry, nearly two-thirds of voters land squarely in the middle on the abortion issue. Either they’re pro-choice and support restrictions such as a ban on late-term or partial-birth abortions or they’re pro-life with exceptions such as those for rape, incest or saving the life of the mother. The extremes on either side are the minority. The poll showed around 22% of voters are pro-choice without any restrictions and around 14% are pro-life without any exceptions.

Furthermore, a recent New York Times poll showed abortion isn’t the issue most people think about with the same level of obsession that activists or the national media seem to put into it. That’s probably the case anytime, but it is evident this year, with so much economic uncertainty. The things people are truly concerned about, gas prices, unemployment, inflation, crime and gun violence, are issues that impact the average person every day.

What’s the driving force behind Pritzker’s pandering to the most extreme wing of his party?

Pritzker’s recent visits to early voting states New Hampshire and Florida show he’s at least dipping his toes into the idea of national politics. While I was opining on WGN-TV on election night, I said his speech after securing the nomination and kicking off the fall campaign sounded more like a kick start to a 2024 campaign than a race in Illinois. The main theme? Abortion.

His campaign quickly pushed back telling me Pritzker is “running for re-election as governor of Illinois and nothing else.” But as President Biden’s approval numbers keep dropping and he continues to look physically and politically brittle, it’s a stretch to believe he would be on the ballot a few days before his 82nd birthday. You can’t blame the governor for considering an opportunity.

That also adds fuel to the fire that Pritzker is more focused on a potential run for the White House in 2024 than he is about his Republican challenger in November, conservative state Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia). Add the fact that Pritzker ended June with $60 million in his campaign account compared to Bailey’s $363,000 and you can see the level of confidence Democrats have at keeping the governor’s office in their control.

Pritzker is a progressive governor, and it doesn’t look as if he speaks the language of downstaters or the two-thirds of voters who fall in the middle on abortion. Yet Illinois needs a center-right or center-left leader who can start to bridge some of the divides that have made Illinois politics so mean and toxic for far too long. There’s a reason Jim Edgar remained popular with rank-and-file voters for so many years. He built bridges, he didn’t blow them up with rhetoric or negative ads.

I don’t know if partisan voters even want this anymore, but I do know the public needs a leader who is focused on people. The same people who are worried about putting food on the table, getting to work on an empty gas tank and keeping their kids safe at school.

If this race for governor continues to devolve or isn’t competitive, none of us will be better for it.

• Patrick Pfingsten is a former journalist and Republican strategist who writes The Illinoize statewide political newsletter. Read more at www.theillinoize.com or contact him at patrick@theillinoize.com.

Patrick Pfingsten

Patrick Pfingsten

Patrick Pfingsten is a former award-winning journalist and Republican strategist who writes The Illinoize statewide political newsletter.