Illinois primary voters have spoken. This year’s race for governor will be a battle between two of the wealthiest men in the state.
But this outcome almost didn’t come to pass.
Democrat J.B. Pritzker won easily, but incumbent Republican Governor Bruce Rauner barely escaped a humiliating defeat.
Four years ago, political novice Bruce Rauner just made it out of a crowded Republican primary field, beating his nearest opponent by just three percentage points.
Four years later, up against a drastically underfunded, long shot, fairly extreme opponent, he won by … three percentage points.
Rauner claimed victory during the 10 o’clock news, before media outlets had even called the race in his favor.
“I am humbled, I am honored," Rauner told supporters. "Thank you to the team. Thank you for all our supporters. Thank you for the people of Illinois for giving us this opportunity. On to victory. On to victory."
Despite that initial bravado, Rauner quickly became subdued.
His victory was narrow in part because of a backlash by conservatives, who point to his signing of Democratic bills on abortion and immigration — and blame him for a two-year budget impasse that ended with a tax increase and almost none of his agenda.
“To those of you around the state of Illinois who wanted to send me a message, let me be clear: I have heard you," Rauner said.
That message was carried, loudly and clearly, through state Rep. Jeanne Ives exceptional showing — coming within three percentage points and well exceeding expectations.
“Today the popular revolt against the political ruling class fell just a bit short," Ives said. "But I will tell you, we are very proud of the effort that we have made from this campaign today.”
Typically, concession speeches feature something like: Now is the time for our party to unify behind our nominee.
Here’s what Ives said: “You know, as I know, that Bruce Rauner had to be challenged in this election."
Beyond trying to unify a party in which nearly half the primary voters wanted to dump him, Rauner will have to face a Democratic nominee who can match him dollar for dollar and then some — and who won his primary much more decisively.
“I’m J.B. Pritzker and I’m going to beat Bruce Rauner!” Pritzker shouted to cheering supporters.
Pritzker got 45 percent of the vote while each of his main Democratic rivals, Daniel Biss and Chris Kennedy, each got about 25, give or take.
Both men had, as recently as last week, called Pritzker a “liar” and a “fraud.” They acknowledged the tough campaigning, but were relatively conciliatory in defeat.
“The voters of Illinois have spoken, and now we must follow their lead, and give Mr. Pritzker the support that he has earned,” Kennedy said.
With such rich, self-funding candidates, the race is already thought to be the most expensive in Illinois history. And it could also break the national record set in California several years ago.
Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the race for governor was not the only one on the primary ballot. Both parties also nominated candidates for attorney general.
On the Democratic side, Lisa Madigan’s surprise retirement announcement last year made eight Democrats and two Republicans think: I could do that job.
Democratic voters chose state Senator Kwame Raoul as their nominee.
“You know, we had an embarrassment of riches: We had eight highly qualified candidates,” Raoul told supporters.
That included former Gov. Pat Quinn, trying to revive the political career most people though ended with his defeat by Bruce Rauner in 2014. He lost by less than three percentage points.
On the Republican side, Erika Harold easily won the nomination. The Harvard-educated lawyer reportedly skipped the usual victory party to watch the returns with her family.
As ever, the end of one election campaign also marks the start of another, so don’t expect much of a break from mailers and TV ads.
But hey, the general election will be here before we know it — only 7 months, 16 days to go.