Campaigns backed by the governor and his allies’ money swung the other direction Tuesday night.
By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network
SPRINGFIELD — In Chicago, a Democrat state representative who bucked his party was pummeled in a $6 million primary race despite big money help from conservative circles.
Meanwhile downstate, a GOP state senator who crossed Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and sided with Democrats and public sector unions on a key labor bill withstood a charge from a well-financed challenger endorsed by the governor.
Total spending in that race surpassed $4 million.
The two races were among those cast as nearly direct proxy wars between Rauner and Democratic Speaker of the House Michael Madigan.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, challenger Juliana Stratton had 18,488 votes to Rep. Ken Dunkin’s 8,804 in the 5th District House race.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, incumbent Sen. Sam McCann of Plainview had 20,934 votes to 19,026 for challenger Bryce Benton of Springfield. Benton conceded that race for the 50th District Senate seat about 11:20 p.m. Tuesday night.
Experts say political spending in those races reached unprecedented levels because of what was at stake: leverage and power in the midst of not only a huge budget dispute, but an ideological fight over how state government should operate and the relationship between state government and its employees.
“It’s about these candidates, but it’s also about sending a message to everyone in the legislature … to everybody else who’s going to be voting in the General Assembly for the rest of the year and then who’s going to be on the ballot in the fall,” said campaign-financing expert Kent Redfield.
The message to lawmakers: Stick with your team’s agenda.
Redfield said that applies when it’s Gov. Rauner and his allies trying to unseat McCann, who voted against the governor’s position on an intensely fought labor bill.
“The message becomes that if you go against the governor on something he considers important, you’re looking at $2 million being spent against you in your next primary,” said Redfield, professor emeritus at University of Illinois Springfield.
It also applies when it’s Madigan and his traditional allies, including organized labor, backing Dunkin’s challenger, Redfield said.
On the Democrats’ side of the aisle, the message is that “if you go off the Democratic reservation, so to speak, it’s not necessarily the speaker’s money, but big labor’s money that you’ll have to contend with,” Redfield said.
It was Dunkin who split from Democrats and wouldn’t support Senate Bill 1229, which the Republican governor said would strip him of his constitutional power to bargain contracts on behalf of the state and could yield a payout worth billions to public-sector employee unions.
On the same bill, McCann broke GOP ranks and cast his vote with Democrats, saying he was voting the will of his district.
The spending saw Republican interests break tradition and pool their money not only to target one of their own, McCann, but to support Democrat Dunkin in the House primary.
Jim Nowlan, a former member of the House and one-time GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, said the new wave of huge campaign spending raises the question of whether candidates with big money from a relatively small number of donors become more indebted to those donors than to their districts.
Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said, “This type of spending has really reduced the voice of local donors in those districts, and that’s something that really alarms us.”
Dan Proft is the head of the Liberty Principles Independent Expenditure Committee, which spent more than $3 million in the effort to dislodge McCann.
Proft also is a cofounder of the Illinois Opportunity Project, which contributed about $1.3 million to Dunkin’s efforts. Proft, however, says he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of that group.
Proft said gathering and spending conservative or free-market money — even if from a relatively small number of wealthy donors — is no different than public-sector labor unions or trial lawyers backing their favored candidates with millions of dollars.
“It’s really simple,” Proft said. “People who believe in a particular philosophy of government and policy are organizing, raising and expending resources on behalf of like-minded candidates.
“People who want to see the same policies advancing are working together. OK, so what happens on the left?” he continued. “I realize they don’t want competition, but that’s tough.”
Analysts say expect even bigger spending come the fall.
Conservatives who can afford to spend are going after a number of targets as they try to wipe out Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.
The way the districts are now mapped, perhaps a dozen to 18 House seats could change hands plus another eight to 12 in the Senate, Redfield said.
The GOP wants those seats, he said, and the spending on behalf of the challengers is going to make Democrats and their allies up their financial game.
–Reporter Julio Rausseo contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Among his other roles, Dan Proft is a senior fellow at the Illinois Policy Institute, the Illinois News Network’s parent organization.