Illinois Republicans spent big last election in hopes of winning the General Assembly

By David Jordan

Since the 2010 midterm elections the Republican Party has made long term investments in flipping as many state legislatures as possible. And over the last three campaigns, their gamble has paid off.

In the past six years, the Republicans have managed to take nearly 1,000 state legislature seats from the Democrats across the country.

The Republicans once controlled 14 state chambers in 2010, but after the 2014 election cycle the number rose to 30. Much of the switch can be credited to a stronger fundraising apparatus on the Republican side, and in turn they have much more in their coffers to finance campaigns.

“[The Republicans] have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in winning state houses,” said David Axelrod at a recent question and answer session at the Medill School of Journalism. Axelrod is currently the director of the University of Chicago’s Institute for Politics and a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama.

In the last decade, the Republican State Leadership Committee has raised over $165 million nationally to help campaign for Republican candidates, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. During the same period their counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, raised less than $65 million.

But Illinois Democrats have remained competitive despite national trends.

It is one of the few states where Democrats have historically out fundraised Republicans, largely due to support from unions. The Democratic Party and their candidates have out fundraised their Republican counterparts in three out of the last five elections according to data from the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Before the election the party held supermajorities in both chambers, even after Democratic candidates struggled nationally during the 2014 midterm elections. These supermajorities gave them the opportunity to override a veto from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Going into this election, however, Rauner saw the opportunity to alter the composition of the Illinois General Assembly and chip away at the power held by Democratic Speaker of the House Michael Madigan.

Recognizing his ability to use his own wealth and the wealth of friends sympathetic to his politics, Rauner began amassing a large sum of money  to spend big in the 2016 General Assembly elections, including an estimated $32 million of his own wealth.

Since the Supreme Court decision on the case Citizens United v FEC, there has been a proliferation of independent expenditure committees, more commonly known as Super PACs.

While Super PACs did play a role in Illinois elections, a loophole in the Illinois campaign finance laws from 2009 and 2012 allowed for donation restrictions to be lifted in campaigns where a candidate donated or loaned large sums to their own campaign or if Super PACs spent the same sums.

“It is a provision built into our campaign finance system that does not exist in any other state,” said Sarah Brune, executive director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Through these two means, Rauner and Republicans could fundraise large sums, which could then be used to spend on campaigns.

Rauner’s fundraising campaign attracted some of the wealthiest individuals in the state. Since 2014 hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin donated $20 million and Elizabeth and Richard Uihlein, owners of the Uline packing supplies company, donated $8 million to Rauner’s candidate committee and Super PACs.

Real estate mogul Samuel Zell donated $5 million to Turnaround Illinois, a Super PAC founded by former Rauner staffers. Even New York based hedge fund manager Paul Singer donated nearly half a million to various campaigns despite having no apparent ties to Illinois, according to campaign disclosures required under state law.

The large portion of these sums was ultimately directed back to the Republican Party, which could then spend it on down ballot races in competitive districts. Illinois law does little to restrict campaign donations from being sent back to the party.

“Once [money] is into the system it can flow pretty freely,” said Kent Redfield, professor of political science at the University of Illinois–Springfield.

Ultimately, Illinois was not one of the Republican success stories during this past election. Rauner’s campaign only gave him a half-dozen seats across the Illinois House and Senate, even though the Republicans spent record amounts to make the campaigns competitive. While it did reduce the supermajority in the House to a simple majority, it did not flip control of either chamber.

Nationally, however, the Republicans continued to gain in the latest election.

In the coming year two more states will have Republicans controlling both chambers, bringing the number up to 32. The Minnesota Senate went to the GOP despite Hillary Clinton winning the state’s presidential vote, and in Kentucky House will be majority Republican for the first time in nearly 100 years. After historic losses, the question is how the Democratic Party can move forward at the local level.

“I think a lot of this tussle over who the party chair is going to be should be about that issue because the mission of the party can’t just be about electing presidents,” said Axelrod.

A list from Illinois Sunshine, a project of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, tracks the largest expenditures of the Illinois Republican Party . (Screenshot courtesy of the ICPR)
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