There is a real human cost in the standoff between Illinois Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, left, and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, right.
The political war between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan has moved from the Capitol to dozens of suburban and Downstate House and Senate districts this fall as each party spends tens of millions of dollars to try to assign blame for state government’s implosion.
In a daily battle playing out across TV, radio, mailboxes and phones, Republicans are tying Democratic candidates to Madigan, the long-serving House leader the party has spent years demonizing. Democrats, meanwhile, are making Rauner the star of attack ads against GOP candidates, with controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump playing that role in some cases.
The all-out assault is shattering campaign spending records as contribution limits are lifted in contest after contest. Many competitive local General Assembly races used to cost several hundred thousand dollars. So far this fall, 16 legislative races have topped $2 million. Of those, a dozen have crossed $3 million and six have eclipsed the $4 million mark, including a pair of House races on the Northwest Side and in Lake County that each have clocked in at more than $4.5 million. That’s based on fundraising and spending by outside groups from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31.
It’s part of the new normal in Illinois politics. Madigan and Rauner already have been at odds for nearly two years over the governor’s economic agenda and a full state budget. Voters also can expect high-dollar pitched battles every two years until one side has been brought to heel and the other can impose its will.
Unions and trial lawyers largely are funding Madigan’s troops, while Rauner and wealthy allies are bankrolling the Republican efforts. One longtime Illinois campaign finance expert questions whether the influx of all that campaign cash is good for either side or for the state’s politics.
"If having someone who is, or appears to be, a wholly owned subsidiary of the speaker is bad for representative democracy and local control, then replacing them with someone who is, or appears to be, a wholly owned subsidiary of the governor — I don’t think that gets us any closer to democracy and local control," said Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
"If we were keeping score and asking if it is now a more balanced fight, that begs the real question of whether this is how we really ought to be electing people and making decisions and representing local legislative districts and communities. That’s the big picture part of it. It’s not healthy for the political system on either side," he added.
On the ballot Tuesday are all 118 House seats and 40 of 59 Senate seats. More than 60 percent of the races are uncontested, meaning there’s only candidate on the ballot. Of the 48 contested House districts, only two dozen truly are up for grabs based on where the campaign money is being spent. In the Senate, there are 13 contested races, but only seven that have been targeted by Republicans or Democrats.
Since control of the House switched twice in the mid-1990s, Republicans lacked a cohesive, organized fundraising network while Democrats could rely on friends in organized labor and among civil trial attorneys. That has changed with Rauner, who made hundreds of millions of dollars as a wealthy equity investor prior to being elected governor in November 2014.
One thing hasn’t changed: The power of legislative leaders to steer campaign funds to lawmakers and favored candidates, enhancing their power and ensuring loyalty.
At stake is the first-term Republican governor’s vow to use his personal resources and that of his friends to erode Madigan’s 71-vote supermajority in the House and Senate President John Cullerton’s 39-vote supermajority.
The Democrats, in theory, should be able to override any Rauner veto. They could raise taxes and make the cuts necessary to bring the state’s finances in order. Madigan, however, tends to want Republicans to put some skin in the game for such major moves. And in past practice, it’s taken just a handful of recalcitrant Democrats to prevent Madigan from exercising critical overrides, with his 71 Democratic votes being the minimum needed to overturn a veto.
While Rauner and Republicans have money to spend on legislative contests, Madigan and Cullerton have a crucial geographic and demographic edge. Democrats drew individual House and Senate district boundaries to favor Democratic candidates, and Democrats also turn out in greater numbers than Republicans in Illinois in presidential election years.
Republican insiders suggest that this fall’s efforts are part of a long-term strategy to demonize Madigan in the minds of voters. They know that dethroning the Southwest Side speaker almost surely won’t happen this fall. But if they can narrow the gap, perhaps they can finish the job in 2018, when Rauner will be at the top of the ballot seeking re-election in a nonpresidential year.
The bad guys
The GOP campaigns share a similar theme, attempting to link Democratic lawmakers and candidates to Madigan, who has been speaker for all but two years since 1983, the longest tenure of a legislative House speaker in the nation. The argument, made in thousands of TV ads and mailbox pieces displaying his image, is that Madigan has been around for forever and is the cause of the state’s financial problems and lagging economy.
Many ads also contend that Madigan’s law firm, which seeks lower tax assessments for commercial property, helps lead to higher property taxes for others.
In the Metro East area, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Madigan has become so familiar that a Republican ad against Democratic Rep. Dan Beiser of Alton doesn’t use the speaker’s first name or title in a Cardinal Nation baseball-themed ad.
"1987 — Heartbreaker of a year," a narrator says. "Cards lose the World Series. Dan Beiser gets elected. Now, Beiser’s playing for Madigan’s team, batting 1,000 percent for unbalanced budgets and crushing tax hikes…. Dan Beiser, all-star for Madigan. Big loser for Metro East."
Airing in a relatively expensive media market, the attack ads are part of Bethalto Republican Mike Babcock’s challenge to Beiser, a contest that has totaled more than $4.1 million in cash so far.
Other ads label Democratic challengers as "Madigan’s hand-picked" candidates and depict them as puppets of the House speaker.
Republicans, Redfield said, "have done perceptually a better job of making Madigan a villain rather than Rauner becoming a villain" in Democratic campaigns.
Madigan and Democrats have sought to fight back by linking Republican candidates to Rauner and in some cases to Trump. Rauner’s "turnaround agenda" includes changes in state law to weaken organized labor and make it more difficult for workers to claim injuries they sustained were job-related.
A mailer from Service Employees International Healthcare Illinois against Republican Michael Amrozowicz of Gurnee uses the tag line "Stop the Bully," a reference to the governor, and warns of the candidate taking "dark money from billionaires like Gov. Rauner." Amrozowicz is challenging Democratic Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake in a contest totaling more than $2.8 million so far.
A review of campaign finance reports indicates that Madigan already may find himself down two seats in the House.
In the far northwest suburbs, Republican Steven Reick of Harvard has far outraised Democrat John Bartman of Marengo for an open-seat contest that resulted from Democratic Rep. Jack Franks’ decision to run for McHenry County Board chairman. The district leans Republican, Franks had shown independence in Madigan’s majority and the speaker’s Democratic Party fund has given only $51,867 in printing and postage costs for Bartman’s mail pieces.
Additionally, Democrats aren’t playing in an open-seat race in the East St. Louis area where Democratic Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson is retiring. It’s a heavily Democratic district, but Republican Bob Romanik of Belleville has put $2.1 million of his own money into the contest. It’s unclear how much of that money he’s actually spending, however. He reported $2 million left to start October. Romanik is a convicted felon, a former strip club owner, a controversial talk show host and a radio station owner. The Democrat is LaToya Greenwood, an East St. Louis council member who has gotten little more than $22,000 from funds Madigan controls.
Still, some Republicans privately acknowledge that there may be a negative down ballot factor from having Trump at the top of the GOP slate. They fear moderate suburban women, turned off by Trump’s controversial statements about women, could fail to turn out or vote for Democratic candidates in a region where the GOP once held strong sway and is anxious to reclaim seats.
Ocean of cash
In the general election two years ago, one Senate race topped $4 million while one House contest eclipsed $2 million, Redfield said. But this year, the state will easily outpace what was spent in 2014, with higher spending and more races that are heavily contested, Redfield said.
The most expensive race so far, at more than $4.55 million in contributions and spending by outside groups, is on the Northwest Side. Longtime Rep. Michael McAuliffe, the lone Republican state lawmaker from Chicago, is locked in a re-election battle with Democratic activist Merry Marwig. It’s also a good example of how both parties are moving money around this fall.
McAuliffe has raised more than $2.5 million this year, led by more than $2 million from the House Republican Organization, the campaign finance arm of the House GOP headed by Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs. Durkin also has given nearly $105,000 to McAuliffe.
Marwig, a political newcomer, has raised more than $1.6 million, with more than $190,000 coming from Madigan’s Democratic Party of Illinois and another $67,000 from the Democratic Majority fund, a campaign finance arm of the House Democrats. She’s also gotten sizable donations from other House Democrats not facing a contest, as well as from unions and law firms.
That’s allowed McAuliffe to focus attack ads on the Madigan theme, including referring to Marwig as the speaker’s "hand-picked" candidate and criticizing her for seeking a lower reassessment of her property — something all homeowners have a right to seek. In one ad, a narrator says Madigan and Marwig are "looking out for themselves instead of you."
Both McAuliffe and Marwig also are benefiting from independent expenditures from groups using mailers, phone calls and advertising to support one contender or to oppose the other. By law, the groups cannot coordinate their spending and activities with the candidates.
Of the more than $400,000 in independent expenditures. Marwig has gotten $223,000 in help from abortion rights group Personal PAC, more than $71,000 in assistance from the Gun Violence Prevention PAC and more than $48,000 in aid from the Humane Society Legislative Fund. The National Association of Realtors has spent $69,727 to help McAuliffe.
Such independent expenditures have resulted in the removal of campaign contribution limits in the McAuliffe-Marwig race, along with 14 other legislative contests. It allows candidates to take in unlimited amounts of money from a single donor.
In many cases, the limits were lifted due to the independent expenditures being made by the Liberty Principles PAC, a group aligned with and funded in part by Rauner. Liberty Principles’ funding includes $2.5 million from Rauner, $2.3 million from the Turnaround Illinois PAC backed by the governor, $1 million from Rauner ally and Citadel hedge-fund founder Ken Griffin and $1.5 million from conservative businessman Richard Uihlein of Lake Forest. Liberty Principles is headed by radio talk show host Dan Proft, whose fund has pitched in for targeted races and allowed the GOP to expand the playing field in other contests.
Liberty Principles has used cookie-cutter ads critical of Democrats on behalf of Republican candidates in the House and Senate, splicing in images of the individual Democrat — often with a critical reference to Madigan. One series of ads morphed the images of Trump, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Madigan together, giving the speaker a Trump-esque hairstyle and earrings.
In a recent round of ads, the political fund appears to acknowledge potential problems with women voters. The ad features the spokeswoman at the Proft-related Illinois Opportunity Project criticizing "gender-obsessed politicians" before bashing the local Democratic candidate.
The Trump factor also is evident in advertising in the state’s most expensive Senate race at this point, the $4.2 million southwest suburban battle between Democratic Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant of Shorewood and Republican Michelle Smith of Plainfield. Democrats attack Smith in TV ads for having taken an online presidential candidate compatibility poll and posting on Facebook that she was in "94 percent agreement" with Trump.
Republicans in more conservative parts of southern Illinois see the potential for a Trump advantage when it comes to turnout. Republicans also have worked to link Democratic Sen. Gary Forby of Benton and Democratic Reps. John Bradley of Marion and Brandon Phelps of Harrisburg to Madigan and Chicago regionalism.
One ad features Forby, Bradley and Phelps as toy soldiers led by Madigan out of the Capitol. They are criticized for supporting a "bailout for Chicago schools" as a toy tank knocks down a paper school bus.
To counter ads from Republican challenger Dale Fowler in a race that’s exceeded $3.4 million, Forby, a lawmaker since 2001, noted in one ad this summer that he’ll go after everyone.
"He’s Gary Forby and he never backs down from taking on our fights, from fighting Mike Madigan and the Chicago Democrats to make concealed carry (of firearms) the law, to fighting Bruce Rauner and Dale Fowler’s dangerous cuts to our schools," a female narrator says. Forby, she says, is "Genuine southern Illinois and he never backs down."
Redfield, the political scientist, said it’s always better as a candidate to have money, but warned there’s also a point of diminished return.
"There is a point where it all becomes noise. There just isn’t anything that stands out anymore. There’s always a question about what’s a marginal return, is there a saturation point." Redfield said.
"Democrats have had an advantage on money in the past, certainly an advantage on the map. But in a presidential year, if Rauner makes gains on the Democrats, that’s a pretty significant accomplishment given what’s against him," he added.