“This will be the most expensive race of our lifetime,” a Republican friend assured me last week about the apparently-already-begun 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

If Democratic billionaire J.B. Pritzker pulls the trigger and decides to run, we can expect that significant campaign spending could begin as early as next month – on both sides. And if last week is any indication, this is gonna be one nasty contest.

The Illinois Republican Party began running robocalls on December 13 to elected Democrats, along with their party’s contributors and activists. The calls sought to tie Pritzker to imprisoned former Governor Rod Blagojevich by using an FBI tape of Blagojevich spit-balling with an aide about getting Pritzker to endow a not-for-profit organization that the governor could run after leaving office.

The Pritzker camp responded to the robocalls with a statement criticizing Governor Bruce Rauner for not passing a budget for two years and allowing “human services to be gutted.” The statement from Pritzker’s spokesperson also claimed the governor should have better things to do with his time than to “dredge up the crazy rantings of Rod Blagojevich.” That led to a quick but rather large opposition-research dump that sought to tie Pritzker even more closely to Blagojevich. There was no Pritzker response to that one.

Behind the scenes, Pritzker allies fumed at the absurdly early attack and warned that Rauner was “poking the bear” and would regret it. But Rauner’s people mocked Pritzker for being “thin skinned” and warned that last week’s research dump was “a very small appetizer.”

The aim here appears to be to either keep Pritzker out of the race or take him out in the Democratic primary before he can present a clear danger in the fall campaign with his estimated $3.4-billion net worth. Rauner has tons of his own money, of course, but he also relies on a couple of super-wealthy friends for additional tens of millions. Pritzker can conceivably fund a race all by himself, although he has recently been meeting with top labor leaders and other party honchos as well.

So we can probably expect more of this stuff from Rauner’s state party in the coming days as Pritzker makes his final decision on whether to run. Neither side has yet started a proper opposition-research book on the potential Democratic candidate. Last week’s attacks were mainly based on basic Google and LexisNexis searches.

But if they’re going to try to snuff him out in the Democratic primary, Pritzker’s online comments about Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders could eventually come into focus, I’m told. Sanders ended up doing pretty darned well in Illinois’ Democratic primary, so trying to alienate a huge chunk of likely Democratic primary voters would be a smart play for Republicans.

Pritzker, a loyal Hillary Clinton supporter, referred to the insurgent presidential candidate on Twitter by his initials “BS” and tweeted that Sanders was “outrageously McCarthyite.” Pritzker also re-tweeted an article about how Sanders “said lack of sex and resenting your mom could cause cancer”; he pointed to favorable comments about Sanders by the National Rifle Association; he referred to the candidate’s campaign manager as “delusional”; and he occasionally engaged Sanders’ supporters on the social-media platform. And I didn’t even look at the guy’s Facebook account.

Some Democrats pointed out last week that the Republicans’ Blagojevich-based attacks failed miserably in the just-completed U.S. Senate race against Tammy Duckworth. But the Rauner folks say the issue kept Senator Mark Kirk in the hunt during the summer, before he was overwhelmed with Duckworth cash in the fall. Indeed, Kirk was polling essentially even with Duckworth throughout the summer.

The Republicans also used the Blagojevich issue in several legislative races, including against state Representative John Bradley (D-Marion), who once had a public fight with Blagojevich after the then-governor referred to him as a “wallflower” and a pawn of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. That well-covered spat didn’t matter to the GOP, of course.

“For anyone who has a real association with Blago – and I think our argument yesterday is that J.B.’s history was more than fleeting – it is a potent hit,” one Rauner guy put it the day after the robocalls were launched.

The question now becomes whether Pritzker is prepared to expose his children to this sort of nonstop mudslinging for almost two solid years. We will probably know more after the holidays. But don’t expect any lull in the negativity while we wait.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.

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