Image: JB Pritzker

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker tries to turn Biden’s age into an asset

Last week, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker drew national headlines when he wrote a strongly worded letter to President Joe Biden saying his White House needed to step up action on the migrant surge in Chicago.

But this week, Pritzker rose to Biden’s defense on one of the most fraught issues of the president’s re-election: age.  

Pritzker’s strategy is a notable attempt by a prominent Democrat to go on offense on the issue, which has widely been seen as one of Biden’s weak points.

Pritzker, who is also a re-election surrogate for Biden, took on the issue in an address to Wisconsin Democrats at a fundraising dinner Wednesday night.  

Before about 200 people, including elected officials like Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Gov. Tony Evers, Pritzker laid out a case about how both Biden and former President Donald Trump have aged, arguing Trump has grown toxic, while Biden grew into a “gem.” Pritzker also argued that Democrats shouldn’t shy away from the issue. 

“I’ve thought a lot about why people care so much about age in this coming election, and I want to talk to you about it,” Pritzker said, according to audio of the event the Pritzker campaign shared with NBC News. “We need to stop dismissing concerns about the physical age of a candidate, especially when that concern comes from a young person. Instead, what people are afraid of is the age of the candidates’ ideas.”

Pritzker then compared and contrasted Trump and Biden, including Trump’s being part of a party that embraced “old” ideas like restricting abortion.

“We have two examples of how people age at the top of our presidential tickets in Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” he said. “It’s not just that Donald Trump doesn’t have Joe Biden’s character; it’s that as he grew old. He had a chance to take all his life experiences and use them to become someone empathetic, courageous and kind. And instead, he chose to be cruel, cowardly and small.” 

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In a text message, Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung responded: “Who’s J.B. Pritzker?”

At 80, Biden’s age has become one of the defining issues of his re-election campaign, even though Trump, his leading opponent at the moment, according to polls, is 77. Dozens of voters recently told NBC News they considered Biden’s age to be more of an issue even though there isn’t much of a difference.

Pritzker made the remarks at the state Democratic Party’s Founders Day Reception, an annual fundraiser where labor leaders, donors and elected officials gather. 

A spokesperson for Pritzker said the speech and messaging were pulled together independent of the Biden campaign. 

Pritzker went on to argue that Biden had made age his “friend” and used his years to become “a gem of a human.”

In a September NBC News poll, three-quarters of those surveyed said they were concerned about Biden’s age and mental fitness. Of those polled, 59% cited major concerns, and 15% more had moderate concerns that Biden lacked the mental and physical health to be president for a second term. 

Pritzker made waves last week when he wrote his letter to the White House complaining of a “lack of intervention and coordination at the border.” He pleaded for additional federal backing in the wake of a migrant surge in Chicago. 

Pritzker, who has twice been elected statewide, is widely considered to be on the shortlist to run for president in 2028. He is a billionaire who is a longtime Democratic donor; he gave more than $1.1 million to the state party last year, in addition to having donated to Evers’ successful re-election campaign.

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On Thursday, Pritzker again acted as Biden’s attack dog. The Biden campaign released a statement from the governor, who also sits on the campaign’s national advisory board, that took aim at Trump’s comments about Israel the night before. In remarks on Wednesday, Trump called the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah “very smart” and said that Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unprepared for the attacks.

Pritzker is Jewish and a staunch advocate of Israel. He also helped build the Illinois Holocaust Museum. 

“No true friend of Israel, the Jewish people, or of peace would praise Hezbollah just days after what President Biden and Jewish leaders have called the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” Pritzker said in a statement. “Donald Trump’s comments are disgusting, dangerous, and underscore a simple fact: he is unfit to lead our country and would make the United States and our allies around the world less safe.”

The Trump campaign defended the former president’s comments, saying in a statement: “President Trump was clearly pointing out how incompetent Biden and his administration were by telegraphing to the terrorists an area that is susceptible to an attack. Smart does not equal good. It just proves Biden is stupid.”

Natasha Korecki

Natasha Korecki is a senior national political reporter for NBC News.