Plutocracy (noun): When even a Kennedy can't hang.
You have to be a billionaire to run for governor in Illinois. That's the takeaway from the quarterly financial disclosures filed this past week. The amount of cash raised by the campaigns of Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker could run some small countries. And for both men, the heaps of cash are coming from their own pockets.
Move over super PACs. Illinois is on the verge of full-blown oligarchy.
Try to keep your jaw from smacking the table as we run through the numbers.
For the year, Rauner's campaign has raised $71 million. More than $50 million has come from his own pockets. Pritzker is no slouch, with every penny of his $28 million flowing directly from his personal fortune. Like clockwork, Pritzker dumps another cool $7 million into his campaign every few months, spends it on attack ads and writes another check.
Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar recently cried "uncle" and dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination because he couldn't keep pace. Democratic state Sen. Daniel Biss -- considered by many the race's progressive dark horse -- has had to rely on $120,000 from immediate family, including $30,000 from his mother, according to disclosure reports. And Democrat Chris Kennedy pumped more than $200,000 into his campaign this past quarter and is quickly losing ground to Rauner and Pritzker.
Bobby Kennedy's son -- with his pedigree, name recognition and access to East Coast cash -- looks destined to be steamrolled by the massive wealth of his competition.
Only Congress can stem the burgeoning plutocracy in Illinois and elsewhere with a complete and total overhaul of how elections are funded.
Rauner and Pritzker are in an arms race, one that, a decade ago, would have easily funded numerous successful campaigns for U.S. Senate.
On Tuesday, Prtizker's wealth placed him No. 219 on Forbes' annual 400 Richest Americans. The hotel magnate is worth $3.4 billion, the publication estimated. By this rarefied metric, Rauner is the pauper among the two gubernatorial front runners. With an estimated net wealth of just $1 billion, Rauner didn't even make the Forbes list.
There's been increasing concern nationally about dark money in U.S. politics. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the flood gates that created massive super PACs and provided those on their secret donor lists unprecedented power in American politics. One's ability to influence elections is -- and always has been -- directly correlated with what's in their checkbook. Now, seats are quite literally for sale.
But the situation in Illinois is fundamentally different and cannot be addressed with solutions now kicking around statehouses throughout the country. For example, this past year, voters in Washington state and South Dakota considered referendums on sweeping campaign finance reforms intended to rein in outside dark money. Included in the measures were provisions for optional public financing, only accessible if a candidate adhered to severe restrictions on large donors and cash flowing in from out of state. The measure failed in Washington, garnering just 46 percent of the vote. South Dakota voters approved it only to see the state Legislature shoot it down.
Purely optional access to public money wouldn't right things in Illinois' gubernatorial race, though. The two leading candidates don't need outside cash. They already have plenty. In a lot of ways, Rauner has become his own super PAC, tossing money to fellow Republicans who've stuck by him and hanging it over those who haven't.
Both Rauner and Pritzker are free from the muck that is fundraising in this country, which empowers interest groups over constituents. Yet they represent a worrisome trend where only the 0.00001 percent can afford to hold office. Kennedy -- whose campaign has issues far beyond a lack of cash -- could wrack up support from a slew of powerful unions and he still wouldn't be in the same solar system as Rauner and Pritzker.
Even the millionaires -- the oft-derided 1 percent -- couldn't run for governor in Illinois. The race looks open solely to billionaires, an ugly reality seemingly embraced by Democratic and GOP leadership.
Voters deserve choice and a legitimate debate about ideas. They deserve an election that's not accessible only to the uber-wealthy. To that end, candidates such as Biss, Pawar and Kennedy each have something to contribute.
But good luck hearing it over the gold and platinum din bought and paid for by Rauner and Pritzker.