Mihalopoulos: So much spent by so few to accomplish so little

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Gov. Bruce Rauner, center left, shakes hands with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan after inauguration ceremonies in Springfield last year. File Photo. (Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP,)

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Most of us are rightly focused on a presidential election race unlike any other in the country’s history, featuring two candidates who evoke strong dislike from big blocs of the American public.

Here in this state, when you go down the ballot in a few weeks, you essentially will be asked to pick your poison a second time.

In legislative districts across the state, regardless of what names actually appear next to the little boxes you check, you’ll likely be asked to choose between toadies of two men.

Virtually every race that’s hotly contested will be a battle between proxies of first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Mike Madigan, the longtime Illinois House speaker and chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Each party is expected to throw huge amounts of money into Illinois House and Senate races.


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But that could do little, if anything, to change the balance of power and break the deadlock.

Amid all the weirdness in this year of Trump, veteran Illinois political observer Kent Redfield hesitates to make any predictions.

It only makes sense, though, for him to calculate that the Democrats, with Madigan having drawn the legislative map in their favor, are “maxed out” in terms of how many seats they can control. They could suffer some losses in both chambers, Redfield says, but probably not nearly enough to lose control.

“We’re going to see a ton of money spent and a huge flurry of activity, but it could be that not much will be changing in terms of the Legislature,” says Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield’s Institute for Legal, Legislative & Policy Studies. “What a mess.”

In one corner, we have Democratic lawmakers known as “Madigan’s mushrooms.” Remember the old saying about how mushrooms need only to be kept in the dark and fed dung?

Madigan and the state Democrats have lost some primary races in Chicago in the past few years. Yet, it’s not as if the left-leaning winners of those primaries would be drawn to the anti-union Rauner instead of Madigan.

Meanwhile, the state Republican Party has become almost as much a cult of a single personality as Trump’s White House campaign.

“Of the $20,927,496 that the Illinois Republican Party has raised this cycle, $20,071,600 has come from Rauner, his committee or his wife,” the excellent Illinois Election Data blog tweeted this week.

The hard-core political geeks and truly altruistic among you should read a recent post by the blog author, Scott Kennedy, who clearly explains how both parties have slalomed around campaign contribution restrictions to collect deep political war chests.

The end result, Redfield says, will be “far and away the most expensive legislative election in Illinois history.”

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown says the GOP needs to spend huge amounts merely “to escape from Trump,” who has virtually no chance in Illinois.

But Dan Proft, who heads the conservative Liberty Principles PAC, says choices in the presidential race won’t have much to do with down-ballot decisions for state representatives and senators.

“I’ve seen no evidence of drag,” Proft says, predicting hard-fought legislative races across much of the state, especially in the northwest Cook County suburbs and the Chicago area’s collar counties.

Proft also says he thinks good could come of the November legislative elections for Republicans even if Madigan remains speaker, as most expect. He says Republicans could forge coalitions with some lawmakers in a weakened Democratic majority on certain issues, such as school choice, despite Madigan.

Redfield, though, doesn’t expect much of anything to get done after voters pick between “wholly owned subsidiaries” of Rauner and Madigan. Usually a cautious academic, Redfield admits he’s become prone to ranting when he considers the post-election prospects.

“What are we really accomplishing by doing this?” he says. “I don’t know how we ended up where we’re at. Unbelievable.”

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