Tuesday's fiercely fought Democratic and Republican primaries in Illinois proved to be tough for underdogs and great for the status quo.
The state's embattled Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, narrowly avoided the embarrassment of losing to an unhinged Trumpist challenger named Jeanne Ives, mostly by pouring millions of his own dollars into the race. On the Democratic side, a billionaire named J.B. Pritzker basically bought his party's nomination with the backing of the state's party elite. And the infamous Chicago political machine delivered a nail-biter win to conservative Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski, who white-knuckled a spirited challenge from progressive Marie Newman.
These races had drawn some national attention for their potential to showcase newfound energy on the left as part of a broader anti-incumbent, anti-establishment fervor, and for the potential embarrassment of a sitting and deeply unpopular Republican governor getting unseated in his own party's primary. Party elites in Springfield and D.C. are probably relieved at these results.
They shouldn't be.
The topline numbers obscure major shifts that are likely to roil Illinois and national politics for years to come. The bottom line is that the state's Democrats and Republicans are headed in opposite directions — an ascendant progressive left no longer afraid of challenging the state's Democratic insiders, and a Republican Party falling inexorably into the hands of white nationalist extremists. For better or worse, a state that has seemed stubbornly stuck in a bygone era of patronage and machine politics is careening headlong into an era of polarization that closely mirrors the national predicament.
While Rauner is no moderate, by today's up-is-down standards he counts as one of the more reasonable Republicans in the state. But his salvation is likely to be brief, because he will be an overwhelming underdog against Pritzker in the fall. In addition to alienating a majority of Illinoisans with his intractable refusal to negotiate or compromise on the state budget, the governor drew unwanted scrutiny from the conservative intelligentsia when the National Review declared him the "worst Republican governor in America."
That designation seemed somewhat uncharitable, since Rauner faces perhaps the most hostile legislature of any governor in the country and has basically zero policy achievements to speak of except those that were literally forced on him by overwhelming Democratic majorities. If anything, Rauner held the party's inflexible line as best he could. It didn't help that he had angered downstate Republicans by signing an abortion rights bill last September in what was probably a hopeless attempt to salvage his general election prospects.
It obviously didn't work. And the strong showing for Ives, Rauner's Trumpist challenger, should terrify moderate Republicans interested in ever winning a statewide race in Illinois again, as well as Democrats who are confident that the chaos of the Trump era will witness the final vanquishing of fact-averse white nationalism. An unapologetic zealot, Ives is best known to voters for okaying this genuinely despicable ad that mocks trans people and others in the most horrifying possible ways. The fact that she has appeal to a significant sector of the Republican base in Illinois of all places strongly suggests that this awful form of politics will survive the president and remain a threat to American democracy for many years to come.
For progressive Democrats, it was generally a disappointing night. The resurgent left wing of the Democratic Party invested heavily in the state's third congressional district. There, newcomer Marie Newman came achingly close to unseating Dan Lipinski, 51-49. He seems an unlikely candidate to survive another primary cycle, but progressive activists were still bitterly disappointed by this result after polls showed a toss-up.
Still, Lipinski's decline is indicative of the waning strength of conservative Democrats nationwide. The last time Lipinski faced a primary challenge was in 2012, when he defeated Farah Baqai with over 87 percent of the vote, despite voting against the Affordable Care Act and the DREAM Act. He ran unopposed in the primary in 2014 and had no challenger in either the primary or the general election in 2016. In other words, Lipinski should have been the very definition of a shoo-in. But despite assistance from the national party, including support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and strong backing from Nancy Pelosi and House leadership, Lipinski barely squeaked by.
While the party probably needs to tolerate candidates who are personally if not legally opposed to abortion in certain districts, like the one Conor Lamb just won in Pennsylvania, IL-3, which Hillary Clinton carried by more than 15 points, is not one of those places. Lipinski has long been a target of progressive activists, but it wasn't until last year that the disjuncture between his voting record and his constituents' desires resulted in actual grassroots energy against him in his own district. That energy isn't going away.
The progressive groundswell was also felt in the state's Democratic gubernatorial primary. Investment banker J.B. Pritzker, scion of one of the country's richest families, had spent the past year dropping over $69 million of his own money into the race to face off against Rauner. State Democrats hoping to capture supermajorities in the state House and Senate, and thus amend the state constitution to allow for progressive taxation, made an early calculation that J.B.'s billions could match Rauner's money at the top of the ballot and also allow the party to distribute the rest of its money on the other races.
Yet victory remained stubbornly out of reach for Pritzker throughout the campaign. He never could get his polling numbers above 40 percent, and in January the campaign of state Sen. Daniel Biss began to dig into Pritzker's lead despite the frontrunner's overwhelming cash advantage. Biss, a former University of Chicago math professor, became the default progressive darling in the race and scored endorsements from prominent progressive groups like MoveOn, Our Revolution, and Reclaim Chicago. While the race was sparsely polled, there was a clear uptick in support for Biss after the new year. An election shocker was not out of the question. But that upset never materialized, and Pritzker carried the race going away.
Now, Illinois voters will be treated to the spectacle of two unloved billionaires blanketing the state in enough campaign cash to buy the Cubs 10 times over. But if last night is any indication, their style of politics is living on borrowed time.