Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New legislative map contributes to high-dollar political races

By Jamey Dunn

At least one race for the Illinois General Assembly is on target to break an all-time spending record, and another race has seen contribution limits tossed thanks to a new law.

More than $2 million has been spent in the state Senate race between Democrat Andy Manar and Republican Mike McElroy. The spending total in the 48th District will likely break the 2010 record of more than $2.7 million spent on a Senate race. That record was set when Republican Sam McCann unseated Democratic incumbent Deanna Demuzio. McCann is running unopposed in the general election this year.

David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said that part of the reason the race is so expensive is the district itself. It includes parts of Springfield and Decatur and stretches diagonally down to the southwest portion of the state, stopping short of the Metro East area. The size of the district leaves candidates with the need to buy airtime for ads in several areas. “You’ve got to buy time at both ends,” he said.

Morrison said the same factor could be driving fundraising in what will likely prove to be the most expensive appellate court race this year. Of the $1.45 million raised by candidates for judge across the state, more than a third was raised in the race for an opening on the appellate bench in Illinois’ Fifth Judicial District. Democrat Judy Cates has raised almost $410,000, while her Republican opponent, Stephen McGlynn, raised almost $140,000. “It’s the far southernmost part of the state; it’s the least populated of the five judicial districts,” Morrison said. “If you’re going to go on TV  you’re talking St. Louis, Paducah, Springfield, Decatur a bunch of different markets to cover the whole area.” He added, “In most of those markets, you’re paying for viewers who can’t vote for you” because only a small potion of the viewership in each market lives within the district.

A new Illinois law that tosses out campaign contribution limits if an outside group spends more than $100,000 in a state legislative race has been triggered in one instance so far this general election. Personal PAC, a pro-choice political action committee, has spent more than $150,000 opposing Republican candidate Joe Neal in the 31st Illinois Senate District. Neal and his opponent, Democrat Melinda Bush, do not have to abide my donation caps when accepting money form supporters. This is the first time the provision has gone into practice since Gov. Pat Quinn signed it into law in July.

The new law is based on a stipulation in previous campaign finance reforms that allows the limits to be tossed when candidates put more than $100,000 of their own money into their own campaigns. In the 52nd Illinois House District, both independent Dee Beaubien and Republican David McSweeney have injected more than $100,000 of their private funds into their campaigns. The total spending for their race tops $1.5 million. Six competitive Illinois House races have surpassed the $1 million mark for total spending, and at least one more is edging close to becoming a $1 million race.

However, Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield and director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit campaign contribution database connected to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said it is unlikely that the $2 million all-time House spending record will be broken. That record was set in 2010 by Democrat Jay Hoffman and Republican Dwight Kay. Redfield said that Hoffman, an incumbent who lost the race, drove up the spending by infusing his campaign with large sums of his own money. Redfield also says the new legislative maps play a role in the high dollar races. He said that Democrats, who drew the map, are playing offense in the suburbs and spending while trying to pick up more seats. However, they were unable to draw truly safe districts for many downstate incumbents because downstate Illinois has begun to lean more to Republicans. So, those incumbents are spending big bucks to try to hang onto their jobs, while Republicans are willing to spend more on challenges that may give them a shot at unseating Democrats.

So far, the five most expensive Senate races after the 48th District involve incumbent Democrats fighting for their political lives. Redfield says this trend too is driven by geography and demographics. Southern Illinois has seen a drop in population, so districts must be larger to contain enough residents. This means that the Democratic strongholds that do exist downstate, which are often population centers, can become diluted in large districts that also contain rural voters, who are more typically Republican. “The Democrats were able to protect House districts downstate better than they were able to protect the Senate districts just because of how large the Senate districts have to be.” But Redfield said that despite the tough races, it is unlikely that Democrats would lose their majority control in either chamber. “I would still be surprised if the Democrats were in trouble overall in either the House or the Senate.”

While this is the first election under an Illinois Supreme Court ruling that allows political action committees (PACs) to raise and spend unlimited funds on their own, Redfield said he is uncertain on whether the change has brought an influx of new political money into this campaign season. “I don’t know how much of it is new money versus old money and how much of it is [candidates and parties] getting around limits [by filtering money through PACs].” He said it will take some time to unravel where money came from, especially money from national organizations and non-profit groups with certain tax designations that do not have to specifically disclose each donation. Redfield notes that the current totals aren’t the whole story. “A lot of the money hasn’t been spent, but some of it hasn’t been reported. They may spend some more at the tail end here.”

Morrison said that everyone watching how campaigns are funded is adjusting to the new reality of the so-called super PACs and the rise of unlimited spending that is done independently of campaigns. “I think we’re still at the early stage in the learning curve of independent expenditures. It’s a new way for money to flow. Reporters and the public alike are not really sure how to keep track of it.”

The ICPR launched a new online tool this week to track spending in the most expensive state races. The site is based on numbers from the Illinois State Board of Elections website, which is updated in real time when candidates electronically file their disclosures. The ICPR site takes about an hour to update after candidates file. However, it is a simple way to compare all the top-spending races at a glance, including independent spending by outside groups.


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