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Democrat JB Pritzker topples first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in Illinois governor race

Democrat JB Pritzker topples first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in Illinois governor race Mike Riopell, Stacy St. Clair and Jeff Coen ...

Democrat JB Pritzker topples first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in Illinois governor race

Mike Riopell, Stacy St. Clair and Jeff CoenContact ReportersChicago Tribune

Billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday soundly defeated first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who conceded his re-election bid less than an hour after the polls closed, giving Democrats near total control of Illinois’ state government.

“Voting is an act of optimism that the levers of our Democracy still work,” Pritzker told supporters moments after declaring victory. "You embody that optimism. You light the beacon fire on the hill of history that signals from one generation to another that these are the things that we stand and fight for."

In conceding defeat, Rauner called for unity after a grueling, bitter race in which the two candidates accused each other of criminal activity. They broke national campaign funding records by tapping their personal fortunes for hundred s of millions of dollars.

“This is a time for us to come together,” Rauner said. “This is a time for us to unite.” The governor called Pritzker before speaking to the crowd at his campaign party and promised a smooth transition, Rauner’s campaign said.

“To Mr. Pritzker, I said, Godspeed,” Rauner said. “I hope and pray you serve Illinois well.”

ELECTION 2018: Get midterm election results here »

Unofficial results showed Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, holding a dominant margin of victory. Pritzker had 55 percent of the vote to Rauner’s 38 percent with 76 percent of precincts reporting statewide. Conservative Party candidate Sam McCann and Libertarian Grayson “Kash” Jackson were pulling about 6 percent of the vote combined.

Pritzker will be inaugurated in January as Illinois’ 43rd governor, taking control of a massive state government with $7.5 billion in unpaid bills. And he’ll likely have the benefit of a Democratic legislature that could help him enact his agenda. He has proposed overhauling the state’s tax structure but can’t do so unless voters approve the pla n two years from now, and he frequently has rebuffed requests for specifics about how it would work. He favors legalizing sports betting and the recreational use of marijuana.

Pritzker pumped $171.5 million into his campaign fund over the course of two years. The money paid for a nonstop stream of advertising on TV and the internet to both attack Rauner and get Pritzker’s name in front of voters in a state where he’s never held elected office. And some of it went to other Democratic campaigns and causes, building the party with his personal wealth just as Rauner did for Illinois Republicans.

After self-funding his 2014 governor bid, Rauner put $50 million into his re-election campaign in December 2016 but hadn’t added money since. He struggled to unite Republican voters after his signature on laws to expand abortion, gay and immigrant rights angered conservatives and led to a primary bid he nearly lost.

In a victory speech rich with rhetorical flourishes, Pritzker promised to fight for immigrant rights, health care, equal pay and gun control.

He also made nods to the state’s history and culture, reminding the crowd that the first McDonald’s opened here and the ice cream sundae was born here, as well.

“We taught the nation how to debate, how to shuffle to the Super Bowl and how to eat a pizza,” he said.

The point, Pritzker says, is the state can do groundbreaking things.

“Who we are is how we mend our challenges,” he said.

READ MORE: Illinois takes deep blue dive as national Democrats hope for wave election »

At Pritzker’s election night campaign headquarters, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin made the rounds early in the evening, confidently predicting a win. He noted the champagne glasses already in the ballroom at the Marriott Marquis in South Loop.

Durbin praised Pritzker for efforts to stir support outside the Chicago area.

†œPritzker did something different in this campaign,” Durbin said. “Here was a Chicagoan, clearly a Chicagoan, who wasted no time getting Downstate. I looked around and thought, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for â€" a governor who starts off by unifying the whole state.’”

Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who easily won re-election, had harsh words for Rauner. She took the stage at Pritzker’s party to declare victory in her own race and call the governor “the biggest bully in the state” with “a sick quest” to dismantle organized labor.

“Governor,” she said to loud applause, “you’re fired.”

Rauner supporters began gathering at his election night party at The Drake hotel about an hour before the polls closed at an event held in a noticeably smaller room than the governor used previousl y.

The stage at the front of the room was backed by a large American flag, and two TVs near the stage were mostly being ignored as CNN began collecting national results. In his concession speech, Rauner both called for cooperation with Democrats and referenced the pro-business agenda he failed to enact in his four-year term.

“I call on my friends in the Democratic Party. Let us work together. Let us find common ground. Let us listen to each other, respect each other,” Rauner said. “Let’s study what other states have done to move themselves forward. Let’s realize that many states have made the exact changes that we need to make in Illinois.”

Pritzker overcame big challenges late in his campaign. Rauner attacked him over a confidential report from Cook County’s top watchdog that found Pritzker improperly received $330,000 in property tax breaks on one of his Gold Coast mansions as part of a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers.

Pritzker paid the mone y back after the report surfaced, and he also had to contend with racial controversies that arose inside his massive campaign organization. Three weeks before Election Day, several Pritzker staffers filed a federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in their months on the job, accusations he called “just not true.”

Weeks later, two of his campaign workers were fired over a video displayed on social media showing one of them wearing a dark facial cosmetic mask resembling blackface.

Both episodes stood to remind voters about an earlier storyline from Pritzker’s primary campaign, when he embarked on an apology tour after the Chicago Tribune released a secretly recorded federal government wiretap that was part of the corruption investigation of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is now in prison. The wiretap involved a replacement for then-President-elect Barack Obama for his U.S. Senate seat.

During the conversation, Pritzker pitched Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White as a replacement for Obama. White, Pritzker said, would take care of the “African-American thing” and would be the “least offensive” of the potential black candidates Blagojevich was considering. Pritzker also called former state Senate President Emil Jones “crass” and former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. “a nightmare.”

Rauner tried to capitalize on the late-campaign controversies over the property tax breaks, federal lawsuit and the two fired staffers, telling rally crowds and debate audiences that Pritzker was “using the language of racists.”

The Republican governor, though, had his own political currents to swim against. Democratic trends generated by President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the su burbs created political problems for the governor in an area of the state that helped carry him to victory four years ago.

And his four-year term was dominated by a historic war over the state budget that left social services hurting, universities without state money and uncertainty reigning over the Illinois Capitol.

The impasse put the governor at odds with his chief political nemesis, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, the longtime Southwest Side party leader whom Rauner spent most of his first campaign and term in office vilifying.

Rauner tried to push Democrats to accept some of his pro-business and government reform ideas before he’d sign off on their spending plans. But after a two-year impasse, a handful of Republican lawmakers broke with Rauner, overriding his veto of an income tax hike and spending plan that broke the stalemate.

Soon afterward, the governor declared victory when signing legislation to overhaul how the state pays for public schools, but it came at a steep political cost. He got almost none of what he had hoped to get out of the deal.

And with weeks to go before Election Day, Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced a criminal and civil probe into the Rauner administration’s response to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at a Downstate veterans home that left more than a dozen veterans dead over several years. The outgoing Democratic attorney general’s move put Rauner back on the defensive weeks before a debate in Quincy on an issue that dogged his administration for more than a year.

The joy of Tuesday night may be met with the perhaps painful reality of being in control of Illinois st ate government in January. As of Election Day, the state faces $7 billion in unpaid bills despite last year’s income tax hike. Pension costs are going up and will suck up state money lawmakers and the governor will want to spend on other things such as education.


Speaker Madigan tries to regain supermajority with anti-Trump push in suburbs »

Susana Mendoza declares victory in Illinois comptroller's race over Republican Darlene S enger »

Democrat Kwame Raoul cruises to easy win in Illinois attorney general race »

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