For years, Democrats have tried to cajole Chris Kennedy into running statewide in Illinois, hoping that the wealthy son of the late Robert F. Kennedy could parlay his exalted family name into high office.
So when Kennedy finally announced a bid for governor in February, comparisons to Camelot abounded. He took the early lead in polling and drew an almost immediate endorsement of a coalition of county chairmen in Southern Illinois.
Now, three months later, Kennedy has fallen out of favor with key labor groups and powerful forces within the Democratic establishment. And he’s facing a roadblock that’s unfamiliar to his family: pressure to drop out of the race.
There’s mounting evidence that powerful Democratic players in the state — from House Speaker Michael Madigan to Mayor Rahm Emanuel — are steering unions, interest groups or politicians to throw their support behind billionaire J.B. Pritzker, the brother of former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.
The subject isn’t discussed in public. Kennedy’s campaign says he’s not explicitly been asked to get out and officials in various state and county party groups insist they will remain neutral in the primary contest.
But there’s no mistaking the political calculus at work. For all the nostalgia and political romance wrapped up in the Kennedy name, J.B. Pritzker has pledged to bankroll his own campaign against Bruce Rauner, the wealthy Republican governor with whom Illinois Democrats are engaged in an all-out war. Since 2014, Rauner and billionaire ally Ken Griffin have poured millions of dollars into winning the governor’s mansion and cutting into the Democratic majority in the state legislature. In December, Rauner deposited $50 million into his own reelection account.
“I get it. A lot of the politicians are looking at the Rauner model, saying: ‘we want that. We want the guy with unlimited resources,’” said William Daley, the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama who is supporting Kennedy. “It’s an automatic, instant pot of gold. It’s understandable from a raw, crass political standpoint. I’m not sure that it works in the long-term.”
Kennedy is a millionaire. But at the moment in Illinois, that doesn’t seem to be enough. According to Illinois Election Data, a site that tracks campaign spending, $134 million was spent on state legislative races — plus another $10.5 million on the comptroller race — during the 2016 election cycle. In 2018, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform has predicted that the race for governor will be the costliest in U.S. history.
Kennedy has said he intends to fund his campaign with personal donations, grassroots fundraising and labor support. But various groups who support Democrats, including labor unions, are experiencing “financial fatigue” according to one party insider. They question whether they can continue to withstand the grueling fundraising pressures of both a governor’s race as defend races down the ballot. Pritzker could relieve them of that pressure.
Last week, a coalition of trade unions with a history of supporting Madigan — who doubles as the state Democratic Party chairman — announced they were backing Pritzker just three weeks after Pritzker entered the race. Before that, an Emanuel appointee, Kurt Summers, who had flirted with running for governor himself, held a press conference to instead throw his support behind Pritzker. Some of Pritzker’s early staff hires have worked on Emanuel’s campaigns. This week, POLITICO reported that one of the state’s largest unions — the AFL-CIO — is expected to back Pritzker. Pritzker met early on with labor groups vowing he’d support $15 minimum wage and a graduated income tax. Kennedy has embraced the same stances.
Beyond the issue of financial resources is a question of personality. Kennedy has demonstrated some quirks with both the party insiders and the media that raise questions about his skills as a candidate. Last summer, after giving a speech to the Illinois delegation at the Democratic National Convention, he refused to answer questions afterward. When TV crews followed him to the elevator, Kennedy implored: “Please, I don’t need to address you. Please leave the elevator and let me get to my meeting … Have some decency. What have you become?” The video has been widely circulated.
“A lot of people that I know have a great deal of respect for Chris Kennedy, but there are those who are concerned with what might be called his anti-charisma,” said Don Rose, a long-time political operative and Democratic consultant in Chicago. “I think a lot of people are worried about whether he could become a good candidate, particularly against a fast-talker like Rauner.”
Recently, Kennedy managed to irk Democrats in Chicago’s Cook County, essentially insulting them during a recent party slating session.
He was asked if he would drop out of the race if he wasn’t the group’s choice — a fairly standard question. He responded by lashing out at what he called an antiquated endorsing process.
“What are we talkin’ about here? In a back room of a restaurant?” Kennedy said, waving his arm. “You think the people of the United States is gonna put up with that? Isn’t gonna happen. Isn’t gonna happen. I love you all, I mean no disrespect. But the last thing you want to do is that.”
As far as relating to voters though, Kennedy has already demonstrated he can draw big crowds. Hundreds of people showed up to an event in LaSalle County, Daley said, and an event in Chicago’s powerful 11th ward had people lining up asking Kennedy for photos.
Newt Minow, the last surviving member of the Kennedy administration, said he has for years personally wanted to see Chris Kennedy run for public office.
“There have been a lot of people, including me, who had urged him to run. I think he was wise to wait until his kids were older,” Minow said.
Minow doesn’t believe that the party is trying to push out Kennedy. But, he said, “even if it’s true, it’s not going to make any difference because the voters in the end are going to evaluate Chris, they’re going to evaluate the other candidates. I believe Chris will come through. I’m confident that people will make up their own minds.”
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown flatly denied that the party chair was making a Pritzker push.
“The speaker is not taking a position in the primary,” Brown said. “He’s not taking a position so he wouldn’t be calling people for Pritzker.”
At the moment, Kennedy is out-polling Pritzker as well as other candidates — Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, state Sen. Daniel Biss and Bob Daiber, a school superintendent from Southern Illinois. A Kennedy spokesman noted that Democrats paid a price the last time the party establishment meddled with a big race, referring to Hillary Clinton’s November defeat after her primary against Bernie Sanders.
Sensing a party shift to Pritzker, Kennedy has already tapped into anti-establishment narratives in social media ads, an irony for a scion of a storied Democratic family. Kennedy has held up his contentious Cook County endorsement session as an example that he’ll rage against the machine.
“There isn’t a person in America who doesn’t understand the sacrifices the Kennedys have made. It’s a standard and an ideal,” said Scott Ferson, president of Liberty Square Group in Massachusetts and former press secretary to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. “But you have to demonstrate that you have it and you can do it. The message Robert Kennedy had in the 1960s still resonates today. The question is, does Chris?”