(CNN) - The big money favorites prevailed on Tuesday in the Illinois gubernatorial primaries, CNN projects, setting the stage for what could be the most expensive governor's race in US history.
Billionaire J.B. Pritzker outlasted and outspent the Democratic field, while Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, a multimillionaire himself, narrowly beat back an insurgent conservative challenge from state Rep. Jeanne Ives.
Pritzker poured about $70 million into the primary contest, while businessman Chris Kennedy, son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, put up about $2 million of his own cash. State Sen. Daniel Biss, who made a play for progressive Democrats, narrowly leads Kennedy but neither, ultimately, could run with Pritzker, whose campaign overcame a series of high-stakes setbacks while still managing to invest in the groundwork for the coming general election.
"Tonight, we've taken the next step of beating Bruce Rauner and putting Illinois back on the side of working families," Pritzker said in a statement soon after the contest was called.
Rauner's road to victory in the primary, paved in December 2016 with an initial investment of $50 million from his own coffers, turned rocky toward the finish, as Ives, questioning his bona fides on social issues, made a strong push for conservative voters.
Ives also argued that Rauner's standing with Illinois voters had fallen so precariously, following years of frustrating deadlocks in the Capitol, that she would be the more viable candidate in November.
"There's two people that are prominent in state politics right now that cannot win a statewide election," Ives said on WJBC radio last week. "One of them is Bruce Rauner and the other one is (Democratic House Speaker Mike) Madigan. Those two actually have a lot more in common than Jeanne Ives."
But Ives' aggressive and, in one especially jarring ad, offensive messaging also stirred anger across party lines.
An early February spot featuring a male actor portraying a transgender woman thanking -- in a deep voice -- Rauner "for signing legislation that lets me use the girls' bathroom" drew a rebuke from the Illinois state Republican Party chairman, who asked that Ives "pull down the ad and immediately apologize to the Illinoisans who were negatively portrayed in a cowardly attempt to stoke political division."
Both Pritzker and Rauner enter the second leg of the contest hobbled. Democrat Pritzker will be made to answer again for his ugly remarks in nearly decade-old conversations, recorded by the FBI, with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, while also contending with questions about his finances and relationship with Madigan.
Even before Rauner's projected victory, the Republican Governors Association sought to cast Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt hotel riches, as a "self-serving Illinois political insider" while poking at the Blagojevich tapes, obtained and published by the Chicago Tribune, which reveal Pritzker offering the former governor an unvarnished take on race relations and state politics.
Speaking days after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, Pritzker and Blagojevich can be heard discussing potential appointees to fill the newly minted president-elect's US Senate seat.
"I'm sure you thought of this one, but Jesse White," Pritzker says at one point, suggesting the Illinois secretary of state as a good choice. "Even though I know you (and White) aren't like, you know, bosom buddies or anything, it covers you on the African-American thing."
Pritzker apologized last month, with White by his side.
"On that call, I was not my best self," he said. "I can be better. I have been better and I can do better and I have."
Former state Senate President Emil Jones, described by Pritzker during the chat as perhaps too "crass" for the job, called on Pritzker to leave the race after the recordings went public and accused the billionaire of "trying to buy the black vote."
Rauner remains saddled with desperately low approval ratings following a years-long budget crisis -- one that ended, in 2017, only after Democratic and Republican state lawmakers banded together to override his veto. He also has work to do in winning back conservatives, who nearly handed the nomination to his opponent, a relative unknown statewide who raised less than $4 million.
"This primary election was hard fought," Rauner said in a statement late Tuesday night. "I am honored and humbled by this victory because you have given me the chance to win the battle against the corruption that plagues Illinois."
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