Illinois politics was awash with record amounts of cash during this spring’s primary season.
If you don’t think so, ask residents who live in Chicago’s 5th Illinois House District, or Speaker Michael Madigan’s South Side turf, or downstate in the Illinois Senate’s 50th District.
The candidates in those three races combined to spend nearly $13 million — or about $1 million more than was spent on every House and Senate race in the 2014 primary, according to campaign finance watchdogs at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. And that tally could grow when candidates turn in their final primary cycle campaign finance reports.
Fueled largely by record investments by conservative political action committees — that were largely matched by contributions from Democratic and labor groups — millions of dollars paid for stacks of mailers, TV and radio ads. The onslaught of political advertising, polling and campaign workers was more than Illinois voters had ever seen or heard, or likely wanted to see or hear, said Sarah Brune, ICPR’s executive director.
“In these local races, there just has to be some threshold of what 25,000 or so voters (in a given district) can take in before they tune out,” Brune said. “We had people calling from the 5th District saying they were getting six mailers a day, and had campaign people knocking on their door several times a week.”
In that district, where incumbent Ken Dunkin squared off with Juliana Stratton in a race widely viewed as a proxy war between Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner, the candidates combined to spend $6.1 million— the most ever for a race for the Illinois state legislature.
Dunkin, fueled almost entirely by donations and ad spending by Rauner-affiliated groups, spent $4.1 million — the most of any candidate on the ballot anywhere in the state, but lost by a 2-1 margin to Stratton. All told, Dunkin spent about $464 for each of the 8,804 votes he received, Brune said.
Stratton, powered mostly by contributions from Rauner-hating labor groups, spent more than $2 million, or $112 per vote. Madigan spent $2.4 million and crushed challenger Jason Gonzales, whose support included some $800,000 in outside spending by a PAC financed by former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Blair Hull. Hull, a millionaire, has said he considers Madigan’s outsize influence on the state party to be a drag on Illinois Democrats.
The massive amounts of cash in Illinois politics are a result of a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2010 that allowed nearly unlimited spending by corporations and political action committees and non-profit groups often referred to as “dark money” organizations, said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at University of Illinois-Springfield.
Rauner, a billionaire himself, has put more than $40 million into his campaign fund, and has proved adept at getting other wealthy individuals to pour money into PACs and other groups, Redfield said. Labor groups threatened by Rauner’s anti-union Turnaround Agenda have largely matched the spending.
“This is something that has been building in the state for the past few years, and the governor’s willingness to put his own millions in, and get others to do likewise, has turned it up,” Redfield said.
In 2014, 16 of top 20 PACs in donations were affiliated with labor groups, led by the Illinois PAC for Education, also known as IPACE, a teachers union fund that spent $4 million in an array of state and local races.
IPACE will have to step up donations to stay in the No. 1 spot this election cycle; IllinoisGO’s PAC $1.3 million in spending on Dunkin would have ranked third on the list in 2014. Another conservative group, Liberty Principles PAC, spent almost $7 million on more than three dozen primary races.
IllinoisGO PAC says it’s dedicated to “empowering and defending Democratic lawmakers who make the hard but necessary choices.”
Three times during the last legislative session, Dunkin cast — or avoided casting — votes that would have allowed the House Democrats to override Rauner vetoes, moves that put him on the outs with his party and union groups across the state.
The PAC was established not long after Rauner won the 2014 election. The $9 million in its accounts came from just six wealthy donors: Houston hedge fund managers Laura and John Arnold ($5 million); businessman Matthew Hulsizer ($2 million); Helen Zell, wife of real estate magnate Sam Zell ($1 million); Morningstar, Inc., founder Joe Mansueto; and former Groupon CEO Eric Lefkofsky ($500,000).
The Illinois Opportunity Project, a non-profit group co-founded by conservative radio host Dan Proft, poured another $1.3 million into Dunkin’s campaign. A $500,000 contribution to Dunkin’s fund from the group in February was the largest single campaign donation in the state. The group followed up with a $300,000 donation on March 4, and another $500,000 infusion March 14, according to state Board of Elections records.
Liberty Principles, an independent expenditure group also run by Proft, spent $3 million backing Illinois State Police trooper Bryce Benton’s bid to beat Sam McCann in the downstate 50th Senate district. Independent groups can buy ads and fund other electioneering on behalf of candidates, but aren’t supposed to coordinate with those campaigns and can’t make direct donations to candidates or political parties.
McCann was the only Republican in the Illinois Senate to vote to override a Rauner veto of a bill that would force the governor into binding arbitration in labor talks with state employee unions. McCann, though battered by a barrage of negative ads and allegations of misspending from his own campaign fund, beat Benton by 5 percentage points.
Liberty Principles received $5 million from conservative businessman Richard Uihlein in 2015, and $2.3 million from Turnaround Illinois, an independent expenditure group funded by a $4 million donation from Sam Zell and $2.25 million from Rauner.
Democrats had their own millionaire donors: liberal Chicago philanthropist Fred Eychaner made more than a dozen $5,400 donations in state and local races — the maximum individual donation in races that have campaign spending caps — and gave $600,000 to Kim Foxx, who defeated embattled State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and another challenger, Donna More. That race drew a combined $4.8 million in campaign spending.
George Soros, a billionaire financier who, like Eychaner, is one of the largest donors to Democratic candidates nationally, made a rare donation in a local race, dumping more than $300,000 into the accounts of Illinois Safety & Justice, a PAC that supported Foxx.
Voters shouldn’t expect the deluge of political advertising to abate any time before Nov. 8. In 2014, spending in the general election was double that in the primary, and the race for U.S. Senate, between Republican incumbent Mark Kirk and Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth, is sure to draw in millions from the national parties and PACs.
“It seems like we can just expect more spending,” Brune said.