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Gov. J.B. Pritzker's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be a top issue in the 2022 gubernatorial contest, a political science professor said.

Pritzker announced Monday that he will be running for re-election in 2022.

So far, three Republicans have announced they are running for their party’s nomination to challenge Pritzker. Downstate state Sen. Darren Bailey, suburban Chicago businessman Gary Rabine, and former state Sen. Paul Schimpf have all announced plans to run for governor.

Dr. Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield, said the Republican candidates will have to unite the party to have a chance at winning the election. 

"The issue for the Republican candidates is: how do they bring the party together?" Redfield said. "Even if they find that candidate who can do that, how will he or she appeal to the voters?"

Pritzker, 56, has been in office since January 2019. Pritzker defeated former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a wealthy Republican, to become Illinois' 43rd governor.

In March, the billionaire Chicago Democrat donated more than $35 million to his campaign fund. The campaign funds will be a substantial advantage in this race, Redfield said.

There will always be the question of whether or not the Republican candidates will be able to find some sort of financial angel - like Ken Griffin was with Bruce Rauner,” he said.

Redfield said challengers may lack Pritzker's personal wealth as an heir to the Hyatt hotel chain, but they will have plenty to say about Pritzker's response to the pandemic on the campaign trail.

There will be problems with how he has handled COVID, there will be questions about how balanced the state budget is or isn't,” Redfield said. “He will also get pressed on his attempts to raise taxes; all of these issues can cause a problem for the governor.”

Redfield also said that while the governor has failed in some areas, he will most likely fall back on things he has already accomplished.

If you have an improving economy and improving healthcare, improvement in jobs and credit rating – it is kind of hard to see the vulnerabilities he has overwhelming that,” Redfield said.

While Redfield said he considers Pritzker to be a heavy favorite in this election, the incumbent isn't invincible.

I believe it would require some kind of combination of an economic downturn and a worsening of the pandemic,” Redfield said. “If it gets to the point where Pritzker has to re-impose mask mandates and social distancing, then that can cause major problems.”

The gubernatorial election will be Nov. 8, 2022. 

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