By Sara Burnett and John O’Connor
CHICAGO — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has reserved 30-minute time slots on TV stations across Illinois for infomercial-like campaign ads featuring FBI recordings of conversations between a top Democratic rival and now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The ads, which include 11 minutes of discussions between billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker and Blagojevich, are a highly unusual and expensive pre-emptive strike by Rauner, who’s considered the most vulnerable GOP governor seeking re-election. Pritzker, a billionaire businessman, still faces five candidates for the Democratic nomination in Illinois’ March 20 primary. Rauner’s campaign says the move is a response to Pritzker’s statements that an ad released last week was selectively edited. That ad included a portion of audio captured on FBI wiretaps in which Blagojevich and Pritzker discuss the possibility of Blagojevich appointing Pritzker attorney general.
Pritzker is heard saying, “That’s a deal I would take.”
“J.B. Pritzker is part of the corruption and cronyism that has plagued Illinois for decades,” the Rauner campaign said in a statement. “The people of Illinois deserve better.”
The campaign didn’t disclose what time or on which channels the ads would air, or how much the airtime cost. Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Galia Slayen noted that Pritzker was never accused of wrongdoing.
“Bruce Rauner is desperately trying to interfere in the Democratic primary because he can’t defend his failed record and because he doesn’t want to face J.B. Pritzker in November,” she said.
Blagojevich, a Chicago Democrat, was convicted of wide-ranging corruption in a 2011 trial and later sentenced to 14 years in prison. Several convictions involved his bid to trade an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat Barack Obama vacated to become president for campaign cash. Audio recordings from FBI wiretaps in late 2008 of telephones in Blagojevich’s campaign office played prominently in the disgraced politician’s trial, but none included conversations with Pritzker. Audio not presented at the trial is sealed under a court order but the Chicago Tribune obtained the Pritzker-Blagojevich conversations and reported them in May 2017.
Slayen said hundreds of people spoke with Blagojevich at the time. Rauner’s campaign had to reserve 30-minute time slots for the extended ad, because TV stations do not sell ad time in increments long enough to play the full wiretap recordings. Portions of the ad will air twice during the half-hour segments, which will appear on network and cable channels statewide this weekend.
Travis Ridout of Washington State University, co-director of The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks and analyzes all broadcast ads for state and federal election candidates, said the average cost of a 30-second television ad in the U.S. is $500 to $600. Thirty seconds during prime time in Chicago, however, can run $10,000, he said.
“The intended audience for this is the news media,” Ridout said. “It keeps the story in the news for another day, the connection between Pritzker and Blagojevich, whom I guess no one likes.”
The impact of such an expensive purchase of television time for what amounts to being a mini-infomercial remains a question. A lengthy, dense setup introduces a static ad with unchanging black-and-white headshots of the participants. And while the sometimes-garbled conversation is bolstered by an on-screen transcript, the banter moves quickly and it’s difficult to follow which of the political names, some now obscure a decade later, the two are referring to.
“Even if people aren’t following it, the images are sinister, the recording seems secretive, it makes it seems like there’s some background deal going on,” Ridout said.
Pritzker and Rauner, a wealthy former private equity investor, have each been sinking millions into their campaigns, setting up what could be the most expensive governor’s race in U.S. history. In just the last three months of 2017 the race cost more than $28 million, with $9 of every $10 spent by Rauner and Pritzker, according to campaign finance disclosures. Pritzker responded to the latest attack by releasing his own ad featuring what the campaign called Rauner’s “growing list of blunders, missteps and failures.”
Rauner faces a primary challenge from conservative state Rep. Jeanne Ives.