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Illinois Issues: Money Machines - How Big Donors Dominate Campaign Funding In Illinois


Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

Illinois will host what could be the most expensive race for governor in U.S. history. The huge increase in campaign spending raises a lot of questions about the rise of big money in politics. Between now and the election, Illinois Issues will examine the impact in a series we're calling Money Machines.

State Representative David Harris is retiring this year, and part of the reason is money.

He's represented Arlington Heights and Mount Prospect for two separate stints, stretching back to 1983.

"I think the primary campaign cost me $14,000," Harris said. "Now, I would think it would be probably a hundred times that."

Harris is a Republican and a fiscal conservative. Because of that, he went against his party last year and voted to end the budget stalemate, supporting a spending plan and a tax increase to pay for it. He could have run again and believes he could have raised the money to do it.

"But I would have had to go for months of basically a lot of fundraising," he said. "Because the right wing of my party has said, 'you know, you voted for that tax increase and that was just the wrong thing to do and we'll, we will spend any amount of money to beat you.'"

State Representative David Harris.

Photo Credit: Brian Mackey/NPR Illinois

Any amount of money now feels possible in Illinois politics. Campaign spending has skyrocketed, fueled by donors who are able to give huge amounts. An analysis of data from the nonpartisan site Follow the Money shows that back in the 2006 legislative and statewide races, Illinois candidates raised a combined $43 million.

Most of that money came from interests groups, businesses, trade unions and other organizations - "the traditional sources of big money," as Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at University of Illinois Springfield, describes them.

Fast forward to the 2014 elections - campaign fundraising had more than tripled. A good chunk of the cash, around 40 percent, came from just a handful of big donors.

"So you've got this dramatic increase in how much money is coming into the system that is as a result of the actions of a small number of individuals," Redfield said.

This year, in the race for governor between a billionaire and a near-billionaire, campaign contributions from the candidates already total more than $150 million.In other words, JB Pritzker and Gov. Bruce Rauner have individually given more money than was raised on all statewide and legislative races combined.

Campaign Finance

Ian Vandewalker, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, says Illinois politicians are copying tactics that were tested at the federal level after the Citizens United decision. That court decision opened the door to individuals, corporations and unions to make unlimited contributions to political campaigns.

"It's a trend that is still developing and it seems like just in terms of dollar amounts, Illinois is definitely on the forefront," Vandewalker said.

What it amounts to is "a kind of arms race mentality where every candidate wants to have the biggest war chest that they can. And they know that the most efficient way to do that is to make phone calls to extremely rich donors."

On the Republican side, that includes the richest man in Illinois, Ken Griffin, and conservative donor Richard Uihlein, as well as Rauner.

For Democrats, that is gubernatorial nominee and Hyatt Hotel heir Pritzker, who is cutting checks to state and county party organizations in an effort to shore up the Democratic majority in the legislature.

Democrats also had to pressure their donor base - like labor unions and trial lawyers - to give even more.

What effect that has on politics is up for debate. Some, like Harris, the GOP representative who is leaving the legislature after this year, say it's driving division.

"Going back to the start of the country … we've always had factions of one side or another," he said. "But I think this influence of individuals who can drive dollars based on ideology widens the divide and makes both sides more polarized."

Redfield sees other dangers in these funding dynamics. He calls it “unhealthy” for democracy.

“That money being controlled by a very small number of individuals, it makes it much more difficult to have representative government work where people's interests get aggregated in the legislature and through the political process,” he said.

Still, he acknowledges lawmakers are elected by people in one geographic area. Similarly, others argue while yes, money is an operating force in politics, it’s not the only operating force.

"Does money in politics matter? Well, yeah, it changes the debate. It can for sure have consequences," said Tom Bowen, who is a Democratic strategist and fundraiser. "But if you're right with the voters and you tell them that and you find your way to get your message out to them, you're going to be fine."

Throughout this election season we'll explore other ways money is impacting politics in our series - Money Machines. Next time we'll look at how money filters down to legislative races, affecting not just who wins, but who even decides to run.

This is the first part of the Illinois Issues election-year series, Money Machines, looking at campaign spending in the 2018 election. The second article can be found here.

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.