Governors' Races Have Become Contests Between Bajillionaires

October 19, 2017

THOUGH the primary is not until next March, the election to be the next governor of Illinois is already on track to become the most expensive in state political history, overtaking the $280m fight for the governorship of California in 2010 between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman, a billionaire businesswoman. Election spending in Illinois has increased by 741% this year compared with the same period in the previous election, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, an NGO. The candidates burned through $15.6m in the past three months, led by J.B. Pritzker, a self-funded billionaire businessman running for the Democrats, who splashed out $11.1m, mostly on television advertising, followed by Bruce Rauner, the self-funding Republican incumbent, who spent $2.6m, even though he has not confirmed yet that he is running for re-election. Mr Rauner and Mr Pritzker have so far raised just under $100m between them. In the sort of twist that seems straight from a plot by Armando Iannucci, the lion’s share ($50m) was given by Governor Rauner to a group called Citizens for Rauner. Mr Pritzker gave his campaign a modest $28m.

Though an extreme example, Illinois is no outlier. More and more very wealthy men are running for and winning office as state governors. Tennessee’s Bill Haslam, West Virginia’s Jim Justice, Florida’s Rick Scott, Kentucky’s Matt Bevin, Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, Nebraska’s Peter Ricketts, Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, North Dakota’s Doug Burgum and Arizona’s Doug Ducey all have a net worth measured in the tens, and in some cases hundreds, of millions. The richest is Mr Haslam, a multibillionaire whose father founded Pilot Flying J, a chain of petrol stations and convenience stores. Mr Justice, a coal billionaire, is the richest man in the state he governs.

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    America has had wealthy governors before—think of Nelson Rockefeller and Franklin Roosevelt, both of whom governed New York. But their proliferation is new. In part this simply reflects increasing income disparity in the country, says John Geer of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Candidates with little money are disadvantaged by having to spend more time raising funds from donors to whom they are then beholden. One of President Donald Trump’s most popular campaign lines—that he was too rich to be bought by special interests—works in state elections too. Given the opacity of money in politics, perhaps voters find self-funding campaigns to be refreshingly transparent.

Whatever the reason, the result is that in many states there is now a wealth primary before the electoral primary, says Kent Redfield of the University of Illinois. Big money tends not only to limit the field, but to catapult candidates who have never run for anything before to the front of the race. Florida’s Rick Scott would probably not have won his Republican primary against Bill McCollum, a candidate with a proven track record, had he not spent $50m of his own dosh. The same is true of Mr Rauner, another political neophyte, who defeated Pat Quinn, the incumbent Democratic governor, and personally contributed $28m to the $65.3m, or $36 a vote, that his campaign cost.

People for Pritzker

How good are self-funding governors at governing? Such candidates often promise to run their states like a business, but their success can depend more on whether they have previous political experience. The pragmatic Mr Haslam is well-liked in Tennessee even by Democrats, and boasts an approval rating of around 60%. He was a two-term mayor of Knoxville before he ran for governor.

Michigan’s Mr Snyder and Illinois’s Mr Rauner, on the other hand, are among the least popular governors. Mr Snyder has not recovered from the public-health crisis caused by lead-contaminated water in Flint. Mr Rauner has been unable to govern effectively with the Democrat-controlled legislature. As a result, the state of Illinois’s finances have gone from critical to catastrophic, with unpaid bills amounting to $15bn and the state paying as much as 10% interest on some of its debt.

In Florida, Mr Scott has not managed to do much of what he promised, such as expanding the state’s economic-development agencies or securing big tax cuts, says Aubrey Jewett of the University of Central Florida. The Republican-controlled legislature still considers him an amateur. He is uncomfortable giving speeches or presiding over public ceremonies. Some newly minted governors have found their first encounters with a hard-nosed political press corps to be a shock. In some cases this makes them less willing to talk, which in turn leads to even less favourable coverage—a lesson Mr Rauner, who is now more talkative, learned the hard way in Illinois. Private wealth will not be enough to win him re-election next year, especially as Mr Pritzker is much richer.

Anchors away

One candidate who flunked the yacht primary in Illinois was Ameya Pawar, an alderman who said on October 12th that he was dropping out of the race for the Democratic nomination because he could not compete with his rich rivals. “We raised $830,000 in ten months, which would be a competitive number in any other race,” says Mr Pawar, the 37-year-old son of Indian immigrants, who was re-elected in his ward with 83% of the vote. “But our politics today is about wealthy people funding wealthy candidates.” Other aspirants to the governor’s mansion should not completely despair, though, for there remains another route to the front of the line. Chris Kennedy, a scion of the country’s most famous political dynasty, is a contender in Illinois too.

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