CHICAGO (AP) – State Rep. Michael McAuliffe is no stranger to being at the center of a power struggle that could define the future of Illinois.
Twenty years ago, the only Republican lawmaker in Chicago had just taken over his late father’s district when he found himself targeted by Democrats fighting to regain the majority they’d lost 2 years before. That November, Democrats won back the majority they’ve held ever since, and McAuliffe got a taste of the attention he faces again this year in a fight raging from St. Louis’ Metro East suburbs to Kankakee to Chicago’s Northwest Side.
“We knew this was going to be a battleground,” McAuliffe said.
This year, the political clash in Illinois pits the nation’s longest-serving state House speaker, Michael Madigan, against first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who is using his vast wealth to fund GOP candidates in an effort to diminish the supermajorities Democrats have held in the Illinois Legislature since 2013. The 2 years House Democrats were in the minority in the mid-1990s marked the only time in the past 32 years that Madigan was not speaker.
For Republicans, getting majorities in either chamber will be difficult because Democrats have built large leads: 71-47 in the House, and 39-20 in the Senate.
But decreasing Democrats’ numbers can increase Rauner’s bargaining power to get policy changes he wants, including weakening the influence of unions and passing business-friendly legislation as conditions for him to sign off on the state’s first full budget since spring 2014.
If Democrats increase their numbers, however, they could dictate the remainder of Rauner’s term by crafting the budget they want without the governor’s terms and easily overriding his vetoes. That’s possible now only if all 71 House Democrats stick together – but that hasn’t been the case on key budget votes.
“If they are actually able to get a veto-proof majority, which means getting one or two more seats, they can do almost anything they want,” said Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant.
Democrats and the GOP have poured nearly $2 million into the race between Democratic Rep. Kate Cloonen and Republican attorney Lindsay Parkhurst in central Illinois. And in a southwest legislative district that borders Missouri, the parties invested $2.4 million in a contest between Democratic Rep. Daniel Beiser and his Republican challenger, Michael Babcock.
That’s only a glimpse of the millions of dollars that both parties are investing in about a dozen competitive races across the state. But McAuliffe’s race is particularly important to both parties: Thanks in part to the governor’s personal wealth, Republicans have spent more than $2.6 million in television ads for McAuliffe – the most in any statehouse race in the U.S. this year, according to figures compiled by the Center for Public Integrity.
During his first closely watched campaign 20 years ago, McAuliffe said, he thought it novel that television ads ran on cable. Today, Rauner’s donations to legislative races has made this election cycle like no other in Illinois history.
The GOP is outspending Democrats for the first time in recent memory, forcing them to raise more money to keep up with the nearly $21 million Rauner has given to the Illinois Republican Party committee for races this year. Rauner has contributed another $12 million to Republican House leader Jim Durkin and $1 million to Comptroller Leslie Munger and they’ve funneled some of those funds into races as well.
Republicans spent nearly $32.7 million from July 1 through September with their party committees – a figure that dwarfs the $7.4 million that Democrats’ party committees have spent during the same time, according to figures compiled by the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
And individual candidates are spending millions more.
“We gotta vote out people who aren’t doing their job,” said McAulliffe’s challenger, Democrat Merry Marwig, a political newcomer who’s on leave from a job at a Chicago software company. “People are fed up with the same people down there. They want change.”
Marwig has received more than $800,000 from other Democrats, unions, and political committees that Madigan controls. Campaigning in a moderate district, Marwig speaks in favor of term limits even though Madigan has shown little interest in the issue. McAuliffe, meanwhile, notes that he doesn’t agree with Rauner on everything and that he’s voted to override one of his vetoes.
Both candidates have a tough sell to make. While talking to voters in the district, Marwig met 59-year-old Tom Motzny, who told her he wouldn’t be voting in Illinois anymore because he decided to move to Tennessee where the property taxes are lower.
“I wish Merry a lot of luck,” said Motzny, who doesn’t like that the governor is blamed for the state’s budget mess when Democratic leaders have been in charge for many years. “It’s hard, because she’s not just fighting McAuliffe. She’s fighting the whole [Illinois political] combine.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Several pricey campaigns demonstrate the lengths that Republicans and Democrats are going to strengthen their positions in the Illinois Legislature.
Figures compiled by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform using public financial disclosures show the spending power in the races as of Friday. The amounts will increase as Election Day nears, but totals won’t be known until after Nov. 8. The figures reflect the money candidates have and the amount spent on their behalf by groups that don’t coordinate with candidates.
House District 111
Location: Southwest Illinois, bordering Missouri.
Cost: $3.2 million.
The candidates: Incumbent Democratic Rep. Daniel Beiser, who won the seat unopposed in 2014, and Republican small business owner Michael Babcock.
The contributions: Beiser has $2.2 million, largely from Democratic Party committees and unions. Babcock has just over
$1 million, mostly from Republican Party committees.
House District 79
Location: Encompassing central Illinois’ Kankakee.
Cost: $3.3 million.
The candidates: Incumbent Democratic Rep. Kate Cloonen, who won by only 122 votes in 2014, and Republican Lindsay Parkhurst, an attorney.
The contributors: Cloonen has nearly $1.6 million, mostly from unions and Democratic committees, though she has transferred some of her funds to Democrats in close races. Parkhurst has more than $1.7 million, largely from GOP committees.
Senate District 49
Location: Northeast Illinois, including Plainfield and Shorewood.
Cost: More than $2.6 million.
The candidates: Incumbent Democratic Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, who won with 53 percent of the vote in 2012, and Republican Michelle Smith, a small business owner who served on a local school board for 7 years.
The contributors: Bertino-Tarrant has $1.2 million, while Smith has almost $1.4 million. Bertino-Tarrant’s support comes from teachers’ unions and Democratic committees. Smith is getting most of her support from Republican committees.
House District 76
Location: House District 76 in north-central Illinois, which covers LaSalle and Putnam counties.
Cost: $2.5 million.
The candidates: Democratic Rep. Andy Skoog, who was appointed to the seat in 2015, and Republican Jerry Lee Long, the owner of a property management group. (Democratic state Auditor General Frank Mautino won the House seat by 337 votes in 2014, but he vacated the office in late 2015 to become auditor.)
The contributors: Skoog has just over $415,000, while Long almost $2.1 million. Most of Skoog’s support comes from unions, while Long is getting help from Republican committees, including one controlled by Illinois House GOP leader Jim Durkin.
House District 117
Location: Southern Illinois, covering Franklin and Williamson counties.
Cost: $2.2 million.
The candidates: Incumbent Democratic Rep. John Bradley, who wasn’t challenged in 2014, and Republican Dave Severin, who owns a custom embroidery business.
The contributors: Bradley, backed by labor unions and Democratic committees, has nearly $1.4 million. Severin has about $783,440, mostly from Republican committees.
– Data source: Illinois Campaign for Political Reform