With no incumbent running, the race for the 31st state Senate District in northern and parts of central Lake County has drawn the attention of both political parties in a very big way.
Combined, Democrat Melinda Bush of Grayslake and Republican Joe Neal of Wadsworth have raised more than $1 million since July 1, with large chunks of party money coming for both in the past few weeks.
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That puts the campaign to replace Republican Suzi Schmidt, who chose not to run for a second term, in the upper tier of state races in terms of contributions. Democrats see an opening to regain the spot lost to Schmidt in 2010 and Republicans want to recapture what traditionally has been a stronghold district.
"This is a targeted race," said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. "The legislative leaders ... have taken an interest in the race so you have a lot of money," being contributed.
The 31st is among nine of 59 state Senate districts in which the candidates will have raised more than $1 million, he added.
"Because it's an open seat, it's a competitive district. It leans Republican but the Democrats drew the map and believe they have an opportunity."
According to state election records, Bush, a Lake County Board member from Grayslake, pressed Neal early.
For the quarter ending Sept. 30, Bush had raised more than $232,000 and spent more than $200,000 leaving her with $60,179 available. Neal, a civil engineer from Wadsworth, had raised about $37,000, spent a little more than $23,000 and had $25,873 available for the same period.
But each has switched into another gear since Oct. 1, largely with the help of their parties. Records reporting donations of $1,000 or more show that as of Monday morning, Bush had received more than $404,000 in contributions, with Neal at nearly $332,000.
The Democratic Party of Illinois since Oct. 1 poured more than $189,000 into Bush's campaign and the Senate Democratic Victory Fund kicked in more than $149,000. Bush also showed strong support from teachers and union groups.
"I think it's very important to us. It's a race we see as very winnable," said state Sen. Terry Link, the Lake County Democratic Party leader.
Link said Bush was ready to challenge Schmidt before she withdrew.
"This is one they don't want to lose and it's one we want back," he said, predicting a tight race.
For Neal, the Illinois Republican Party since Oct. 1 contributed more than $181,000 and the Republican State Senate Campaign has pitched in nearly $19,000. Contributors also included the campaign committees of Senate minority leader Christine Radogno and senators Kirk Dillard and Matt Murphy for a total of nearly $56,000.
Neal had support from business groups and received $25,000 from Stand for Children Illinois PAC, an education reform group.
"I think the Democrats have to pump a lot of money into it because Joe Neal has proven to be a very good candidate," said Bob Cook, Lake County Republican Party leader. "It's like our opponents have almost unlimited funds. It makes it harder for us."
District 31 includes Zion, Round Lake, Round Lake Beach, Gages Lake, Winthrop Harbor, Old Mill Creek, Wadsworth, Lindenhurst, Antioch, Waukegan, Gurnee, Beach Park, Grayslake and Lake Villa.