CHICAGO — To get a taste for the kind of campaign a record-shattering $171.5 million can buy, consider just one night in early October when billionaire J.B. Pritzker and Gov. Bruce Rauner squared off at a local television studio in the highest-profile debate of the race.
A few blocks away, a full-force messaging machine was lying in wait.
Inside Pritzker’s spacious campaign headquarters in downtown Chicago, 14 people crowded around a long conference room table, hanging on every word coming off the live TV event, waiting to pounce.
“Pensions!” Galia Slayen, the Pritzker communications director and the night’s traffic cop, called out. “Go!”
With that, the machine whirred into action. One staffer pushed out an email with pension talking points to reporters across the state. Twitter accounts for Pritzker and staffers activated, drawing from a cache of 700 statements prewritten for social media, all printed across an Excel spreadsheet, each prepared for pushback against Rauner, or teasing out a Pritzker policy platform.
Pritzker’s digital team was on hand, awaiting a Pritzker zinger or a Rauner flounder that could be posted as a breaking GIF. A separate staffer was tasked solely with tracking and compiling reporters’ debate chatter over social media and emailing it to the communications team. As the debate wound down, the race to transcribe was on. Ten staffers, starting at staggered points in the recording, pounded away at their keyboards as one person edited. Within about 30 minutes of the event’s conclusion, the campaign had produced its own edited transcript.
By night’s end, some 35 people had a hand in churning out pro-Pritzker messaging; an operation far more expansive than any single newsroom in the Chicago metro area, if not the Midwest.
The debate blitz offers just a glimpse into the sophistication and exorbitance behind the record-spending, platinum-plated operation put together by Pritzker, who, after last week’s 15-point rout over Rauner, became the country’s wealthiest elected official, overtaking President Donald Trump, according to Forbes. POLITICO had an exclusive inside look at the Pritzker campaign, spending more than 30 hours shadowing operations, interviewing staff or traveling with the candidate himself.
The result was one of the most robust operations of any statewide campaign in U.S. history, with spending expected to surpass $250 million, rivaling only the $280 million spent in the 2010 California governor’s race. All told, Pritzker’s juggernaut had more than 200 employees, 33 field offices, wall-to-wall TV ads and a massive investment in digital advertising resulting in innovations that are likely to serve as a model for 2020.
“This was on an unprecedented level. They applied science and innovation to it at every level and remained committed to it,” said Doug House, a Democrat who has been involved in Illinois political campaigns for more than 30 years. “They looked at the entire state and mapped out an idea of the universe of people they wanted to engage and stayed involved in that in every level of innovation that’s out there.”
Heaps of money also meant Pritzker could withstand a series of blows, from the devastating publication of FBI recordings between himself and imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by former staffers three weeks before the election.