Campaign fund-raising records are poised to fall before the March 15 primary, thanks to the political proxy war between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan that’s stoked massive investments in a handful of races.
Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, earned the enmity of his fellow Democrats when he denied Madigan the votes he needed to override Rauner vetoes.
He also earned his political fund the largest single campaign contribution in state history — $500,000 from a political action committee backed by Rauner supporters.
Another Rauner-linked PAC has put more than $1 million into ads either promoting Dunkin or tearing down Juliana Stratton, his opponent in the race to represent the 5th District, who has taken in more than $1 million in campaign cash herself, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a watchdog group.
“If all the funds they have available now — and there is probably going to be more coming in these last couple of days — it will blow away the spending record for a House primary,” says Kent Redfield, a professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield who tracks campaign spending.
“We’re talking about more than $2 million in a House primary,” Redfield says, which is roughly double the highest previous total in a House primary — the roughly $1 million tally in the race two years ago between Democrats Christian Mitchell and Jay Travis in Chicago’s 26th District.
“The cost of these things is going up cycle after cycle,” says Redfield. “There’s no end in sight. This will almost certainly be the most spent in a year when there was no race for governor.”
Through the end of last week, 16 races across the state had gotten contributions from self-funded candidates or “independent expenditure” groups greater than $100,000. And such massive donations can spur even larger surges of cash because they lift contribution limits and allow individual donors to pour even more money into a race.
Contribution caps came off in Madigan’s race in the South Side 22nd District after the super PAC Illinois United for Change spent more than $240,000 on consulting services and advertising for one of Madigan’s opponents, political newcomer Jason Gonzales.
Illinois United’s biggest donor is Chicago businessman Blair Hull, the former U.S. Senate candidate who has criticized fellow Democrat Madigan as “not a team player.”
Illinois United’s big spending on the race meant that Madigan also could take in unlimited contributions. That means the House speaker could boost his war chest exponentially through the primary — money he could then dole out to other Democrats come the general election.
Madigan already has $2.3 million in his own candidate account, and he controls around $7 million more in campaign funds as ward committeeman, head of the state Democratic Party and leader of the House Democrats.
The governor also has used this year’s elections to show his disdain for members of his party who don’t vote in line with his wishes. Downstate Republican Sam McCann has jousted with Rauner over anti-union initiatives in the governor’s Turnaround Agenda, and the conservative Liberty Principles PAC has dumped $1.3 million on ads supporting McCann’s primary opponent, Bryce Benton.
The massive infusion of cash into political campaigns has been fueled in large part by spending from PACs, with Republican-linked committees taking in nearly all their money from a handful of millionaire and billionaire donors, and Democratic PACs drawing their support from labor unions.
Massive amounts of cash coming from outside a district and even outside the state distorts the democratic process, says Sarah Brune, campaign finance expert for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
“When candidates are getting all of their money from these kinds groups, who are they going to be responsive to?” Brune says. “The groups that donate to their campaigns? Or the residents of their district?”
Redfield points out that these high-priced elections are a bipartisan affliction, noting that, in general election races, the two parties typically match each other in campaign spending.
“You’re creating a class of legislators that have a debt to interests outside their districts,” says Redfield. “If you’re a Democrat or a Republican that’s a wholly owned subsidiary of someone else, it doesn’t matter who has bought and paid for you.”
In 2012, the last time Dunkin faced a primary opponent, fewer than 11,000 people voted. If there’s a similar turnout this time and he and Stratton spend a combined $2 million — which, at this point, Redfield sees as a low-ball estimate — they will have burned through $424 for each person who voted.
Particularly in smaller races, the big spending can quickly reach a point of diminishing returns, according to Redfield, who says races like Dunkin-Stratton are more a show of force in the larger Rauner-Madigan struggle than sound election strategy.
“There are only so many mailers you can send and commercials you can air before people start to tune you out,” he says. “And when there is money involved, there tend to be political consultants, and that means the majority of the advertising is going to be negative. That’s a turnoff for voters.”
Myra Olaopa, who lives in Dunkin’s district, has grown tired of having her South Loop mailbox turned into a political battleground.
“I get something from — what’s her name? — Stratton every single day,” says Olaopa, who called and emailed Stratton’s campaign to try and get off the candidate’s mailing list.
And, she says, “I get something from the other guy maybe two times a week.”
She doesn’t plan to vote until the general election — she says she hasn’t ever voted in a primary — and doesn’t see the point in saturating the neighborhood with political flyers.
“Even if I was interested, I would read it just once,” Olaopa says. “Why would I want to read something every day? I hate it. It comes out of my mailbox and goes right in the trash.”
• Largest single campaign contribution in Illinois history
• Went to state Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, from a political action committee backed by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s supporters.
More than $1 million
• What another Rauner-linked PAC has put into ads promoting Dunkin or ripping his opponent, Juliana Stratton.
More than $1 million
• Amount Stratton has taken in.
Amount Dunkin and Stratton are expected to end up spending per voter for each person who votes in their contest.