As Gov. JB Pritzker takes center stage in Florida, speculation of a presidential run increases

Gun Rights

It’s the summer of 2024.

The Democratic National Convention is in Chicago. President Joe Biden, after vowing to seek a second term, dropped his re-election plans because voters turned on him in droves. And in his place, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker is about to deliver his acceptance speech as his party’s nominee for president.

Far-fetched?

At the moment, yes, on multiple counts — from Chicago being the DNC’s host convention city to Biden succumbing to the weight of bad poll numbers to Pritzker’s still-longshot ascension to the top of the Democratic Party’s 2024 ticket.

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But totally implausible? Not necessarily.

The latest sign — and it’s only a sign — of Pritzker ramping up what could be a possible presidential run in 2024 comes Saturday, when the first-term Illinois governor is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at an annual gathering of Florida Democrats.

The Sunshine State is ground-zero of MAGA America, home to former President Donald Trump, whom Pritzker loathes. Trump has laid hint after hint that he’s eying a 2024 White House run himself with an announcement coming possibly at any moment.

The state is also the residence of former Illinois GOP governor Bruce Rauner, whom Pritzker vanquished in 2018. And it’s where Pritzker’s billionaire nemesis, hedge fund tycoon Kenneth Griffin, fled with his business and family after his $50 million investment in an anointed Republican challenger to Pritzker this fall yielded failure in the June 28th primary.

Pritzker’s Florida appearance follows by roughly a month his keynote speech before New Hampshire Democrats, who have been the ones historically to cast the first votes nationally in past presidential primary elections.

The national profile that Pritzker increasingly seems to be cultivating has caught the attention of the political class. It’s led to ramped-up speculation that if the Chicago Democrat can make quick work of his fall campaign against Republican Darren Bailey, then 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. might be the next logical aim for Illinois’ billionaire governor.

But it all hinges on whether Biden, who is 79, decides his current term as president is the end of the road.

“The issue of age is not going to go away, and Biden is going to have to face that question at some point as to whether he’s up to it. And if he’s not, you don’t want to be starting from a standing start. You want to have laid some track for a candidacy,” said longtime Chicago political consultant David Axelrod, who helped former President Barack Obama win the White House in 2008 and later became Obama’s senior advisor.

“And that’s what Pritzker is doing,” Axelrod said.

Potential groundwork

The day after Illinois’ June 28 primary, WBEZ asked Pritzker about his possible presidential ambitions. The governor said he was focused on serving out a full second term and made clear he wouldn’t attempt to unseat his friend, Biden.

“I have no interest in challenging Joe Biden in 2024. I will support him if he runs for re-election. I’m a Democrat, believe that we need to elect a Democrat. And I think Joe Biden has already said that he’s running for re-election,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker’s statement that he wouldn’t run for president against Biden doesn’t address the possibility of Biden’s political retirement and what happens then. That scenario is what makes Pritzker’s trips to New Hampshire and Florida so politically intriguing.

The visits could, as his aides have said, simply be about promoting Democrats in those states during a mid-term election cycle where Republicans are hoping to cash in on Biden’s unpopularity and regain control of Congress and win more governorships.

Or, the governor’s recurring, out-of-state travels could be potential evidence that he indeed is laying the groundwork for a new, legacy-defining chapter in his political career.

“I’ve noticed the same thing you have, like what is he doing? Where is he going?” said political analyst Amy Walter, publisher and editor in chief of The Cook Political Report, who has been watching Pritzker’s moves closely.

“I think if you put JB Pritzker’s name on a poll even of Democratic voters, people who vote in primaries, they probably couldn’t tell you anything about him,” Walter told WBEZ. “But that’s why … if you’re somebody interested in running for president, you put yourself out there at least, and you never know what’s going to happen.”

No Illinois governor has gone on to be president. Former Democratic Gov. Adlai Stevenson II, who served one term as the state’s chief executive from 1949 to 1953, was twice nominated by Democrats as the party’s presidential nominee but lost the 1952 and 1956 elections to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in landslides.

Pritzker is regarded as a prohibitive favorite for re-election against Bailey this fall by respected, political-handicapping organizations such as Walter’s and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. But Bailey remains undeterred, and one of his points of attack has been Pritzker’s possible flirtation with the presidency.

“Out-of-touch, trust-fund Billionaire J.B. Pritzker doesn’t have to worry about the cost of gas or groceries, but Illinois families are paying through the nose thanks to Pritzker’s tax increases and record-breaking inflation,” Bailey said in a statement Wednesday. “Instead of coming to Springfield to do his job, Gov. Pritzker is gallivanting with his rich friends in Europe, New Hampshire, D.C., Maine, and Florida. Illinois families have a message for J.B.: Repeal the Pritzker gas tax hike. Stop campaigning for president and do your job.”

Pritzker’s elevated profile

Pritzker’s term has been one of epic struggle. He entered office with the state in near financial ruin because of Rauner’s two-year budget standoff with the Democratic-led legislature, and within a matter of months, the pandemic upended everything.

But since becoming governor, Pritzker has helped stabilize Illinois’ finances, drawing repeated bond-rating upgrades for the state from Wall Street. He pushed for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, enacted a multibillion-dollar infrastructure plan and put abortion protections into the state’s law books.

When Trump was in office, Pritzker was a repeated thorn in his side. And after the Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, Pritzker became a Sunday news show favorite on abortion rights. The governor amplified his national exposure by his empathetic response to the July 4 Highland Park mass killing and his combative posture toward gun and ammunition manufacturers in the tragedy’s aftermath.

There’s no question Illinois has been seen in the past, nationally, as a fiscal doormat among states and the butt of late-night television jokes over a string of governors adorned in prison jumpsuits. But Pritzker has packaged up many of his legislative trophies and policy stances into political selling points, making Illinois out to be a not-so-gloomy place after all.

Plus, Pritzker, as a successful businessman and an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, has the luxury of nearly unlimited resources to spend as he sees fit politically — even, conceivably, on a presidential run. In 2018, then-candidate Pritzker spent nearly $172 million of his own money to win the governorship.

On the stump, Pritzker has noted all of the things about himself that he says aren’t exactly the archetypal Democratic candidate — his Ukrainian-American heritage, his Jewish faith, his billionaire businessman status. He’s even made light of his weight.

“If you were running something through the computer, it wouldn’t spit out a portly, Jewish billionaire,” Axelrod said. “That’s not sort of the prototype from central casting of a president.”

But these are unusual times, Axelrod mused.

“I think that people are looking for a sort of muscularity and pushing back on Trumpism and on some of the agenda of the right. And he has set himself up,” Axelrod said. “I’m surprised about the number of people who I’ve heard from just recently in response to the Highland Park shootings and his response to the [National Rifle Association] and so on. And I heard a lot of cheering from the crowd from activist Democrats because they would like to see that in a president.”

However, both Axelrod and Walter see Pritzker as a longshot if Biden declares himself a one-termer as president, and a wide-open field of Democratic aspirants emerges — potentially including everyone from Vice President Kamala Harris to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to California Gov. Gavin Newsom to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to name a few.

“I think he starts with some significant challenges, the biggest one, of course, is that people don’t really know who he is,” Walter said. “He does not have a national profile in the same way that even some of his fellow governors do, like … Gretchen Whitmer or Gavin Newsom. So he’s going to have to start by telling people who he is.”

She also thinks Pritzker could face another disadvantage coming from as deep-blue of a Democratic state as Illinois.

“It’s … harder to make the case that you have experience winning in the kinds of states that Democrats need to win in order to hold the presidency, like a Pennsylvania, which is obviously much less Democratic-leaning, or even go up north to Wisconsin, which is an absolute 50/50 state,” Walter said. “So if you look at a governor like say Gretchen Whitmer, if she’s in the mix, she can say, ‘Look, I’ve been able to win in a swing state. I understand how to talk to voters who may have voted for Donald Trump last time, people who might not have supported Joe Biden last time … I have an appeal that gets beyond just the dark-blue state.’”

So far, in whatever this political maneuvering by Pritzker is, he hasn’t drawn public backing from the state’s senior Democrat in Washington, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who helped propel Obama’s presidential campaign during its infancy. Pritzker and Durbin have not engaged in any sort of public feuding, but the two have been on opposite sides of a low-hum fight over control of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

What’s more, if Pritzker really is positioning himself as a possible presidential hopeful, he’s doing it without Obama. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Pritzker aligned himself with his long-time friend, Hillary Clinton, over Obama, even though Pritzker’s sister, Penny Pritzker, was Obama’s finance chair and went on to be his Commerce Secretary. In 2018, Obama recorded a campaign commercial on JB Pritzker’s behalf during his campaign against Rauner.

“[Pritzker] was very much on the other side with Hillary. So, they didn’t start off as close friends. But I’m sure they have a cordial relationship now,” Axelrod said, before adding, “I don’t think President Obama is going to be choosing candidates in 2024.”

Perhaps most of all, Pritzker’s own speechifying has fueled the increased speculation of a national run, as evidenced in his amped up salesmanship at the June 18 New Hampshire state Democratic convention.

There, Pritzker strode to the microphone to Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” and proceeded to lay out his accomplishments in Springfield, poke at his own girth, invoke Obama’s name and rev up the crowd with a fiery excoriation of Trump and the Grand Old Party.

“Here is where the Republican game plan is the most audacious,” Pritzker yelled. “They want to distract you into believing that gay marriage, Black history, Disney World and library books are more of a threat to our children than an AR-15.

“And if we can’t call bull — on that, well then Democrats, we don’t deserve to win elections,” Pritzker said, delivering the loudest applause line of his nearly 40-minute stemwinder.

But until Biden formally decides his own plans, the only certain election in Pritzker’s future is the one he’s facing in November — for another term as governor.

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.

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