Spending in suburban races shattering records

Two years ago, a state Senate race in western Illinois shattered spending records when it crossed the $4 million mark, with the next closest being the $2 million 55th House contest between Democratic state Rep. Marty Moylan of Des Plaines and Republican Mel Thillens of Park Ridge.

Fast forward to 2016, and multimillion-dollar races in swing suburban districts are now the rule, not the exception, as Republicans led by a billionaire governor willing to write personal checks are pushing to make inroads among long-standing Democrats majorities in the state House and Senate.

Just before Tuesday's election, it's impossible to turn on a television or radio without being inundated with ads in which each party assigns blame to the other for the state's woeful financial condition.

It's the latest battle in an all-out war between longtime Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner of Winnetka, who have been at odds since shortly after Rauner's January 2015 inauguration.

"We now have two political bosses in Illinois," said Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "They demand folks do what they want them to do, and they've used money as a major incentivizer."

More than a dozen legislative races crossed the $2 million threshold this fall in total funds raised, according to tallies by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Roughly half those are in the suburbs.

In reality, the flood of campaign cash might be about a single seat in the Illinois House.

A top operative in Rauner's campaign says the GOP's main goal is to break House Speaker Madigan's supermajority of 71 of the 118 seats. Since it takes 71 votes to override a veto, losing one seat would weaken Madigan's control. In the Senate, Democrats hold a bigger edge with 39 of 59 seats, four more than needed for an override.

Spending is focused on a number of suburban races, including:

• The 20th House District, where more than $4.1 million was raised in the race between Republican state Rep. Michael McAuliffe of Chicago and Chicago Democrat Merry Marwig. The district includes portions of Rosemont, Des Plaines and Park Ridge.

• The 62nd House District, where Democratic Rep. Sam Yingling of Grayslake and Republican Rod Drobinski of Wauconda have raised more than $3.7 million. The Round Lake area and parts of Grayslake and Wauconda are in the district.

• The 45th House District race between Wood Dale Republican Christine Winger and Democratic challenger Cynthia Borbas of Carol Stream has brought in $2.2 million. The district in northern DuPage County roughly runs from Route 59 in Bartlett east to Route 83 in Wood Dale.

• The 23rd Senate District, where Democratic Sen. Tom Cullerton of Villa Park and Republican Seth Lewis of Bartlett have raised $3.8 million. The district includes parts of Bartlett, Bloomingdale, Glendale Heights, Roselle, Wood Dale and Villa Park.

• The 49th Senate District race between Democratic Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant of Shorewood and Republican Michelle Smith of Plainfield has raised $3.5 million. The district stretches from southern Naperville south to Shorewood.

The campaign funds controlled by Madigan are flush with checks from traditional Democratic benefactors - public- and private-sector labor unions and members of the legal community.

On the Republican side, key donations have come in the form of sizable checks from Rauner and his supporters in the state's business ranks. In the span of two days, Rauner, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin and Uline CEO Richard Uihlein deposited $5 million into the campaign account of Republican Comptroller Leslie Munger of Lincolnshire, who quickly sent millions of that money out to the campaigns of state legislative candidates.

Millions are also being spent by super PACs, which are prohibited by law from directly coordinating with campaigns but nevertheless produce ads and mailers supporting or opposing candidates. Illinois State Board of

Elections records show the conservative Liberty Principles PAC, led by Wheaton native Dan Proft, has about $4 million on hand. Among his contributions: $200,000 in support of Thillens, who this year is making a bid for 28th Senate against Des Plaines Democratic incumbent Laura Murphy, and more than $225,000 for Republican Dawn Abernathy of Mundelein, who is bidding against Democratic state Rep. Carol Sente of Vernon Hills for the 59th District House seat.

Womens reproductive rights group Personal PAC is planning to spend $1.5 million on 18 legislative races, including supporting Murphy and Cullerton, as well as fellow Democratic state Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake and state Reps. Yingling, Deb Conroy of Villa Park and Michelle Mussman of Schaumburg.

Those close to Madigan say it's difficult to make predictions for Nov. 8 with two anomalies in play - the larger-than-usual spending on ads and mailers and the effects of the polarizing presidential contest on candidates down the ballot.

Both Rauner and Madigan also are playing the long game, looking ahead to 2018, Lawrence says. That will bring another governor's race and determine which party is in control of the once-a-decade legislative redistricting process, which conveys a 10-year advantage in elections.

"The current map works in favor of the Democrats and that's one of the reasons why Rauner is putting so much money into these legislative races," Lawrence said. "The person elected governor in 2018 will be a major player in redistricting that will occur after the 2020 census."

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Republican Rod Drobinski, left, and Democrat Sam Yingling are candidates in the 62nd House District.
Democrat Thomas Cullerton, left, and Republican Seth Lewis are candidates in the 23rd Senate District.
Republican Michael Amrozowicz and Democrat Melinda Bush and are candidates in the 31st Senate District.
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