NEW SALEM, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — A political newcomer with billionaire backing jumped into the Republican primary race for Governor on Thursday, banking on Illinoisans “to have enough common sense to moderate these crazy extremes on each side not to get into them.”
Jesse Sullivan, a 37-year-old venture capitalist who grew up in Petersburg, knows he trails his primary opponents in name recognition. “This campaign is mostly for me about introducing myself to the people of Illinois,” he said. “No one knows anything about me.”
His resume includes degrees from St. Louis University, Stanford, and Oxford, where he earned a global governance degree that led him to work for the Department of Defense as a civilian on counter-insurgency missions in Afghanistan.
“I was part of the human terrain teams, which were the Intel side of the Army,” Sullivan said. His campaign launch video shows him wearing military fatigues and posing for pictures with a tank. “I was in uniform with a weapon down in southern Afghanistan out on combat patrols, but I would not technically be classified as a veteran, because the program I was a part of was on the Intel side of the Department of Defense under the army and not enlisted or an officer.”
Sullivan had no political experience before entering the race, but still managed to make a major fundraising splash sure to attract the attention of his rivals. Sullivan’s campaign reported nearly $11 million in campaign contributions, including five million from Silicon Valley billionaire Chris Larsen, four million from Asurion CEO Kevin Taweel, and a million from philanthropists Robert and Dorothy King. His massive fundraising haul catapulted his campaign committee to the second-largest in the state overnight, trailing only Governor J.B. Pritzker’s campaign, and represents more than 20 times the amount in state Senator Darren Bailey’s fund.
“I’m someone who is able to bring resources in from out of state, I’m going to help bring companies in, we’re going to create the jobs of the future here in Illinois,” Sullivan said when reporters asked about his out-of-state donors. “These are relationships that I’ve built over six years of my life, because they’ve seen the work I’ve done on the nonprofit side; and on the business side, they don’t have a particular interest or benefit here in Illinois, other than getting to see our politics nationally change. They want a uniter who can actually change our divisive politics.”
State senator Darren Bailey, who recently pointed to a jar full of corn kernels to declare himself as the Republican frontrunner, cast Sullivan as a different kind of outsider because of where he has lived.
‘We have witnessed San Francisco’s values on full display in our great state—it’s not good,” Bailey said. “We need a Governor who understands the Heartland, made a life here and shares our values. Our so-called ‘elites’ and their big checkbooks have had their run of things for too long. We think it’s time the regular folks in this state have their say.”
Sullivan, who moved back to Illinois from California five years ago, highlighted his hometown roots in Central Illinois during his campaign launch from Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home in New Salem. His hometown of Petersburg is just a mile-and-a-half away.
“Nine score and nine years ago, a young, tall, awkward country boy stood right here on this very hillside above the flowing Sangamon River in front of a group of close friends to announce his decision to enter politics,” Sullivan said while standing under a statue of Lincoln. “Today, nearly 200 years later, a young, tall, slightly awkward country boy stands in front of a group of his close friends to announce his decision to enter politics.”
“I, too, grew up running around these same wooded hillsides,” he said. “I also have muddy Sangamon river water flowing through my veins.”
Between nervous laughs, Sullivan pivoted to his first attempt at a political punchline.
“I better quick cut off the comparisons to Abe before one of my cousins in the crowd is likely to yell, ‘You, sir, are no, Abraham Lincoln.’ Boy, I wholeheartedly agree with that one. Heck, I couldn’t grow beard like that to save my life.”
He also took jabs at Illinois Democrats, claiming they have made Illinois notorious for “high taxes, corruption, and crime.”
“We’re looking less and less like the Land of Lincoln and more and more like the capital of Capone,” he said, “Al Capone, the Chicago mob boss who lorded over this land of corruption, crime, chaos.”
Sullivan said 95% of the victims of violent crimes in Illinois were minorities, and criticized rhetoric to “defund the police,” calling for policies that are “tough on crime.” He said too many people frame the crime issue as though people who support law enforcement are “anti-minority,” and called diversity “a beautiful thing.”
Over the course of a 23-minute speech, Sullivan referred to Lincoln 17 times, wishing he were “alive today to take on our divisive times,” and quoted Ronald Reagan, another Republican President who grew up in Illinois. But he was less eager to discuss the last Republican to inhabit the White House, who one day prior to Sullivan’s launch had praised the traitorous general who led the Confederate rebel army as a “unifying force.”
In an emailed statement criticizing the removal of a massive Confederate statue, former President Donald Trump wrote that “except for Gettysburg,” General Robert E. Lee “would have won the [Civil] war.”
What would Abraham Lincoln have thought of a comment like that?
“You got me. I have no clue,” Sullivan responded before pointing over his shoulder at Lincoln’s statue. “You should ask him.”
He did, however, have an answer for Trump’s false insistence that he won the 2020 election due to voter fraud.
“Joe Biden won the race. Joe Biden is the president of the United States and Donald Trump had his day in court,” he said. “What I’ll say about election integrity is that right now, you have people on both sides, Democrat, Republican — it switches from election to election — that feel like our elections, there’s something wrong with them. I’m a technology person, and I feel like this is the 21st century. Why are we still having problems of trust around our elections? We need to fix that.”
The former Republican governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, was in Springfield the night before Sullivan launched his campaign, and blamed Trump for why he got “shellacked” in an interview with WTAX.
Some of Rauner’s former campaign staff are already on the payroll for Sullivan’s team, and his campaign launch video included common Rauner themes of an “Illinois Turnaround,” and that “Home is worth fighting for.” Does that signal that Sullivan has Rauner’s support?
“No, I don’t,” he replied, before explaining that he made those connections with campaign staff because they were former military. “The one thing that I really have strongly in common with Bruce Rauner is he was a businessman who had done work in finance and venture capital private equity. Outside of that, I mean, you can see I’m a small town, Illinois, I’m one of eight kids. My dad’s a PE teacher, not a private equity professional. I’m not a billionaire from Chicago. I’m a downstate guy who grew up working on a farm who is trying to figure out how to bring people together. And I think that is the big difference. I want to be a uniter around a common vision to solve our problems in Illinois. Whether you’re Democrat, Republican, we have to come together to solve these problems.”
When Rauner ran for office in 2014, he told voters he was pro-choice and would support abortion rights. However, when he signed a bill to protect and expand abortion rights in the event that Roe v. Wade was ever overturned, many Christian conservatives in the Republican base turned on him and backed his primary opponent in 2018.
Sullivan did not say what he thinks of the recent ban on most abortions in Texas, but did say his Catholic faith has “shaped my views on pro-life.”
“I am pro-life, but I also realize in this state we have a strong supermajority of Democrats in the legislature,” he said. “I’m also someone who likes to get good outcomes. So how are we going to reduce the total number of abortions over time in the state, which is even Hillary Clinton has stated as a goal of hers. So it’s working together with Democrats, Republicans to try to do that.”
“Not only legislatively,” he followed up, “It’s trying to look at adoption, foster care. My wife and I are actually foster parents,” he said, “And we’ve tried to live these values.”
“I think a lot of people would not find this scary thing where the dividers want to make it, ‘Either you care about unborn babies, or you care about women’s rights,'” he said. “I’m the father of all these daughters, you know, like, I am in no way a divider. I want to unite people around this issue.”
Two of Sullivan’s rivals, Bailey and businessman Gary Rabine, have based their campaigns almost exclusively on opposition to Governor Pritzker’s pandemic policies, something Sullivan never once mentioned during his stump speech.
“Those other guys in the race, they’re going to do what they’re going to do, and I’m going to do what I’m going to do,” he said after the event. “We have to allow freedom, but we also have to be responsible. I am vaccinated, my wife is vaccinated. I think that you have to look at science and say, ‘Is this an area that can actually help not only you to not contract the virus, but those around you that you love.'”
Former state Senator Paul Schimpf is also running in the primary and has a military background, though he has struggled to gain much traction from donors or party supporters.
Illinois Congressmen Rodney Davis (R-Illinois 13th) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois 16th) both say they are weighing potential runs for governor depending on the new congressional maps. Illinois Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) says the General Assembly will likely unveil and approve those maps next month when the legislature returns for two weeks of session.
“If the district isn’t there, I’ll look at Senate, I’ll look at governor,” Kinzinger said on Wednesday. “I’ve never excluded those as options. I’m not too worried about it. I’ve been through redistricting before, and I’ve lost a district before and survived. In this case, we’ll see what happens.
“I’ve been in Congress now for 11 years, it’ll be 12 after this. I don’t intend to be in for the rest of my life. So we’ll see what the district looks like. We’ll see what the options are. And wherever I think I can do the best to fight for the future of my country, I will.”