As the only Republican legislator from the city of Chicago, state Rep. Michael McAuliffe has known for the past year he’s a target.
“Democratic colleagues and lobbyists came up to me and said, ‘You better get ready because they’re coming after your seat,’” McAuliffe, whose district includes the far Northwest Side and adjacent suburbs, recently told the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board.
McAuliffe has won re-election by comfortable margins since taking office in 1997 following the death of his father, Roger, who served in the Legislature for 23 years.
But this time, Democrats — led by House Speaker Michael Madigan — are marshalling far more resources to defeat him. And state Republican organizations — bankrolled largely by Gov. Bruce Rauner — are helping him fight back: More than $2 million has been pumped into the race between McAuliffe and Democratic challenger Merry Marwig.
It’s a big-money trend playing out in a number of legislative districts statewide.
McAuliffe vs. Marwig is one of three House races where $2 million-plus is being invested to try to win control of a single legislative district, according to the non-partisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
At the same time, Illinois comptroller Leslie Munger, a Rauner appointee, received $5.3 million in donations last week alone, and Democrats are expected to respond with help for challenger Susana Mendoza, who’s backed by Madigan.
Both sides are capitalizing on loose campaign finance laws for the proxy war between Madigan, who wants to keep Democrats in control of the General Assembly, and Rauner, who has vowed to break Madigan’s lock on power so he can institute a pro-business, anti-union agenda.
The millions of dollars are moving through a web of candidate committees, political parties and super PACs, which are allowed to accept unlimited sums of money that they can use to campaign for or against candidates — as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates themselves.
Thanks to hefty infusions of cash from multimillionaire Rauner and his wealthy supporters, the Illinois Republican Party topped the Democrats by taking in about $21 million since July 2015, state records show. Liberty Principles, a super PAC supporting Republicans, took in another $10 million.
“I’ve witnessed and been part of campaigns where we’ve been outspent by two or three times by the House Democrats,” said Jim Durkin, the House Republican leader. “Now we’re competing dollar for dollar statewide.”
Over the same period, the four political committees that Madigan controls — including the state Democratic Party, which he chairs — have collected more than $14 million. The top donors, as in years past, are unions and their political action committees.
All that money is funding a political showdown over the future of state government.
Democrats currently hold veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate, limiting Rauner’s power. The focus of both Madigan and Rauner for now is primarily on the House, where a Republican pick-up of one seat could end the veto-proof majority there and demonstrate a weakening of Madigan’s grip.
“I think there’s a real opportunity for some surprises this year,” said Republican activist and radio personality Dan Proft, who heads the Liberty Principles super PAC.
Despite the state’s deep financial problems, many Democratic legislators “go to Springfield and they’re just a roll call vote for Mike Madigan,” Proft said. “People are increasingly getting hip to that, and they’re disgusted by it.”
Democrats say their funding comes from unions and lawyers who represent “working families.”
“How the 1 percenters make their money, we’re not even sure how,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown. “But we know that the funding for Democratic candidates is raised pretty much on a grassroots level.”
Madigan entered the House in 1971 and has served as speaker for all but two of the last 33 years. A leading source of his longevity — and the perception that he can’t be defeated — is his potent campaign fundraising operation.
By using multiple political committees, Madigan and his allies are able to gather more money from donors than would be allowed for a single committee under state campaign finance laws. Funds also are being moved from one committee to another.
That’s been the case with the campaign war chest of Rep. Kate Cloonen, D-Kankakee. Cloonen, who won re-election two years ago by just 122 votes, is on the Republican hit list.
As her race grows more heated and expensive — at $1.7 million and counting — her challenger, attorney Lindsay Parkhurst, has received support from Liberty Principles, Proft’s Republican super PAC.
While she fights for her political life, Cloonen’s committee also has become a piggy bank for others. In the last week, more than $300,000 in contributions to her have been redistributed to Madigan’s committees and other campaign funds, including those of several legislators in tough races.
Among the recipients: Marwig, who is challenging McAuliffe for the House seat in and just outside Chicago’s Northwest Side.
“They’re able to transfer money from one candidate committee to another, and that allows the candidates to sort of raise their max this election cycle from their regular contributors — and to get that money distributed to where the party thinks it should go,” said Sarah Brune, executive director of the Campaign for Political Reform.
The dizzying money transfers are happening on the Republican side, too.
During his run for governor, Rauner was the chief donor to his own campaign committee, Citizens for Rauner, giving $27.5 million. Since winning office, he’s poured another $17.8 million into that committee, including $5 million last week.
Since July 2015, Citizens for Rauner has transferred $21 million to the Illinois Republican Party. The party then gave $12.3 million to the House Republican Organization and $2.8 million to the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. All three committees subsequently used that money to support McAuliffe and other legislative candidates.
Additionally, Rauner has sent $2.5 million to Proft’s Liberty Principles group and $2 million to the Turnaround Illinois PAC, a super PAC led by allies of Rauner.
Turnaournd Illinois then transferred $2.3 million to Liberty Principles to support GOP House candidates including Parkhurst.
Through a spokesman, Rauner declined to comment. The governor has travelled the state campaigning for legislative candidates, but he has repeatedly refused to discuss his involvement.
The seeds of the Rauner and Madigan money trees contrast sharply, records show:
• Since July 2015, 20 of the top 25 donors to Madigan’s committees were unions or their political action committees. The top overall contributor was the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters PAC, giving $410,000 altogether.
• Madigan’s four committees sent money or other assistance to 64 political funds or campaigns, not including his own committees or those of unions.
• Madigan doesn’t just send money to other candidates – he also dispatches staff. For example, Kylie Kelly is listed on a recent state payroll as a program specialist for the General Assembly. She was paid $42,006 from July 2015 through July of this year by two Madigan-controlled campaign committees to work on 20 different legislative campaigns.
To compete with Madigan, Rauner has tapped his personal wealth and turned to other wealthy donors. They include:
• Billionaire hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, who gave $5.6 million to Citizens for Rauner during the governor’s campaign and $8 million after Rauner was elected. In August, Griffin donated $1 million to Liberty Principles. Last week, he gave $3 million to Comptroller Munger, the Rauner appointee who’s trying to stave off Mendoza.
• Richard Uihlein, the founder and CEO of a shipping supply firm who’s a prolific contributor to Tea Party groups and other conservative causes around the country. He gave $630,000 to Citizens for Rauner during the 2014 campaign and $2 million following that election. In June he sent $4 million to Liberty Principles, and last week he gave $2 million to Munger’s campaign fund.
Proft said Republicans don’t need to apologize for being funded by millionaires. “It’s an environment where people are afraid to put themselves on the line because of the culture of reprisal in politics in Illinois,” he said. “There are some people with substantial resources who, to borrow a phrase, want to turn around Illinois. There’s no shame in that.”
Contributing: Jacqueline Campbell