The two parties just spent about $60 million in 15 political battlegrounds across the state — and for Republicans the spoils of that war wound up being six legislative seats.
But as the smoke was clearing Wednesday, what effect — if any — the transfer of those seats has on the larger war between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan was open to debate.
Before the general election season began, Democrats held a 71-47 seat majority over Republicans in the Illinois House and a 39-20 advantage in the Senate.
Led by Madigan and Rauner, the two parties then spent tens of millions of dollars to attack each other in legislative battles in the Chicago area and Downstate – including about $60 million poured into just ten House races and five Senate races that became their top targets, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
After the votes were counted Tuesday, the Democrats will start next year with a 67-51 majority in the House and a 37-18 majority in the Senate.
And now the two sides are arguing over how that transfer of six seats impacts their bitter war over the state’s finances and future – or if it does at all.
While Madigan will no longer have enough House votes to override a veto, that may not be more than a symbolic change. Over the last two years, party defections left the speaker unable push through several pieces of legislation opposed by Rauner.
Meanwhile, a six-month budget agreement — forged after the state went a year without a budget – is set to run out at the end of the year.
“I don’t think the election results made a significant difference in Springfield relationships besides the fact that they might have made people crabby,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, who represents a South Side district.
“I don’t understand why Rauner wanted to spend his money that way,” Currie added – a reference to the $17.7 million Rauner and his wife, Diana, personally donated since March to GOP campaigns and funds.
But Republicans say voters sent a clear message that they’re tired of the way Democrats have run Springfield — even as presidential nominee Hillary Clinton romped in the state. “They had the map in their favor, Hillary Clinton at their backs, and they still lost seats,” GOP Senate Leader Christine Radogno said of Madigan and the Democrats. “I think they have no alternative but to see people wanting change.”
In all, six House seats switched from the control of one party to the next.
The costs were high:
- In the 71st District, Republican Tony McCombie crushed incumbent Mike Smiddy, D-Port Byron, 63 percent to 37 percent. McCombie spent nearly $2 million in the race, which equates to about $65 per vote, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Smiddy spent about $1 million, or $57 per vote.
- In the 76th House district, challenger Jerry Long beat Rep. Andy Skoog, D-Peru, 49 percent to 51 percent. Long spent $88 per vote to Skoog’s $59, with total spending more than $3.3 million.
- In the 79th House district, Republican Lindsay Parkhurst ousted Rep. Kate Cloonen, D-Kankakee, 54 percent to 46 percent, though Cloonen spent $133 per vote to $106 for Parkhurst. Together, they burned through more than $5.1 million.
- And in the 112th District, Republican Dave Severin ousted Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, 53 percent to 47 percent. The total cost of the race was more than $2.3 million.
- Republicans also won a seat that’s opening up in the 63rd House district, where Republican Steven Reick defeated Democrat John Bartman, 57 percent to 43 percent. Current Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, opted not to run again.
- One Republican incumbent also fell: Dwight Kay of Edwardsville, who lost to Democratic challenger Katie Stuart in the 117th District.
On the Senate side, incumbent Gary Forby, D-Benton, lost to Republican Dale Fowler in the 59th District, though Forby spent $48 a vote compared to $31 a vote by Fowler. Together the candidates spent $3.7 million.
And Republican Jil Tracy ran unopposed for the 47th District seat being vacated by John Sullivan, D-Quincy.
Severin, who owns a business that manufactures custom promotional products, said voters in his district expressed frustration that the state lacked a budget and was falling further into debt. “People were just tired of what was going on in the state and what wasn’t going on,” he said.
He said many voters felt that Bradley, an assistant majority leader, took orders from Madigan rather than listening to them. “After once being a southern Illinois guy, he’d changed his ways,” Severin said. Yet Severin said he’s ready to “work with Republicans and Democrats” to take on the state’s problems.
Bradley was the only lawmaker from southern Illinois in working groups tasked with coming up with a budget compromise with Rauner — giving the race added symbolism for both sides. Republicans viewed the Bradley defeat as a personal win against Madigan.
Republicans are united on the message that they’re ready to work across the aisle – but they add that compromise depends on Democrats being willing to bend their way.
The election “sends a not-so-subtle message to Democrats that they need to be serious about governing,” said House Republican Leader Jim Durkin. “Negotiation is a two-way street.”
Democrats counter that the Rauner and the Republicans have squandered time and money vilifying their opponents instead of sitting down with them. “It seems odd to me to say, ‘Oh, these people are all going to be shaking in their shoes,’” said Currie.
Currie also disputed the idea that state Republicans triumphed in the election, noting that Susana Mendoza, the Chicago city treasurer, ousted state Comptroller Leslie Munger, a Rauner appointee. The two campaigns poured a total of $12.6 million into the race, with Munger spending $4 a vote to $1 a vote for Mendoza.
The two parties were able to work the system to get the campaign finance limits lifted in the comptroller’s contest and 21 legislative races, fueling the spending.
While he was playing politics, Rauner failed to convene his working group on the budget this summer, Currie said. “That might have been a better use of his time and energy,” she said. “The ball is in the governor’s court.”
The Democratic losses in the House and Senate also have implications for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his ambitious Springfield agenda.
He needs the General Assembly to sign off on his plan to save the Municipal Employees and Laborers pension funds as well as the pension reforms tied to those agreements.
Emanuel also needs the Legislature to make permanent a one-time plan to pick up the normal cost of teacher pensions in Chicago as the state already does for teachers outside Chicago.
And without a deal to solve the state’s pension crisis, the Chicago Public Schools will lose another $215 million already built into its budget.
With all of those pivotal issues hanging in the balance, Emanuel cannot afford to lose the veto-proof majority Democrats had in the Illinois House.
But Emanuel said he has already done the heavy lifting by identifying permanent funding sources for all four city employee pension funds and by convincing the City Council to approve massive tax increases on property, water, sewer and telephone bills.
“Chicago is not asking anything from Springfield on any of the revenue,” Emanuel said. “[Just] ratify what we’ve done.”
The mayor emphatically denied that the election was a beat-down for his fellow Democrats.
“I would caution anybody being overly interpretive that the elections in the state tipped one way,” he said. “The governor did pick the comptroller. The voters picked a different comptroller.”
Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), whose son is a state representative, said the House Democrats had a super-majority in name only, given the periodic defections by members from conservative districts.
“It doesn’t look to me like there is going to be any big change in Springfield,” Zalewski said.