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Rauner, Madigan funding race, but House rivals claim independence

State Rep. Michael McAuliffe, left, and challenger Merry Marwig before the Sun-Times Editorial Board. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Viewed as combatants in a proxy war between Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, candidates in one of the most expensive Illinois House campaigns this election cycle faced off for the first time on Tuesday and tried to show their independence.

State Rep. Michael McAuliffe, the lone Chicago Republican in the Illinois House, is fighting to retain the seat he’s held since 1996 against Merry Marwig, a political newcomer and businesswoman. The district covers portions of the Northwest Side, as well as the suburbs of Niles, Des Plaines, Franklin Park, Park Ridge, Rosemont and Schiller Park.

Speaking before the Sun-Times Editorial Board, McAuliffe said he knew he’d have a tough battle this November. He had been warned daily during House sessions, he said.

“Democratic colleagues and lobbyists came up to me and said, ‘You better get ready because they’re coming after your seat.’ And they would say it once, twice, three times. I heard it every single day I was in session,” McAuliffe said. “…When the speaker is sending people from the [Southwest Side] 13th Ward to come and walk in the 20th District, when he’s trying to get his influence in there for the seat, I understand politics.”

McAuliffe said Madigan’s support for Juliana Stratton to defeat Rauner ally state Rep. Ken Dunkin in the primary sent “a clear message.” Her successful campaign was heavily funded by labor groups that opposed Rauner’s agenda.

“When he [Madigan] wants to come after you, he’s got the resources and can get the resources to come and get you,” McAuliffe said.

The bulk of McAuliffe’s campaign fund comes from Rauner. The GOP legislator said he knew he’d need big checks to fund the hefty pricetag of television campaign ads, which began airing in August. A second TV ad, which sought to link Marwig to Madigan by insinuating they were part of an “inside game” of lowering property taxes, began airing in September.

But McAuliffe insists he hasn’t spoken to Rauner about his campaign and that the contributions don’t tie him to the governor. A mailer sent out by SEIU featured an image of McAuliffe and Rauner and questioned whether they share the same priorities.

Former state Rep. Michael McAuliffe. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Michael McAuliffe, 20th district Illinois House candidate and incumbent. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“I don’t feel like I have any ties to the governor except we’re both in the Republican Party. My district comes first. There are a number of bills that I’ve supported and he’s been against, where I’ve been the sole Republican. Or maybe had some other colleagues join me. So I think I just do what I feel is right for my voters,” McAuliffe said.

Marwig, also an O’Hare International Airport noise activist, said she was surprised by the amount of Republican money spent on TV ads: “I would say getting involved in this race I would have never imaged that a million dollars would be spent in September on false accusations in TV ads, and these pieces of mail.”

Marwig, who is largely funded by unions and Madigan-controlled committees, brought along an Illinois Republican Party campaign mailer which featured a cartoon image of a stick figure holding a purse with a money sign on it that read, “Beware career politicians.”

Merry Marwig, 20th district Illinois House candidate. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Merry Marwig, 20th district Illinois House candidate. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Marwig noted she’s never run for office. She said she’s running because constituents are sick of the gridlock in Springfield, and she wants to protect the interests of middle class families.

There’s no way to talk about the hotly contested race in the 20th District without talking about just how expensive it’s gotten. More than 80 percent of McAuliffe’s campaign fund has come from contributions from Rauner. The governor’s donations now total $1.2 million. That money is being channeled through the House Republican Organization.

In total, McAuliffe has more than $1.5 million in his campaign fund with just weeks to go before the election.

In addition to the House Republican Organization contributions, the Illinois Republican Party has contributed more than $131,000 to his campaign.

Marwig is largely funded by the Illinois Democratic Party and unions, including AFSCME Illinois Council 31, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and SEIU. She received more than $520,000 in contributions since July.