Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner are facing off in a race that is expected to break campaign-spending records in the state. The contest will likely draw national interest and money, and much of the resources on both sides will be spent on television advertising.
Illinois is a state that makes big money races possible. Because Illinois is the fifth most populous state, there are plenty of voters to target with all that cash. The state is also large geographically, which makes for a long campaign trail to travel and lots of ground to cover for get-out-the-vote efforts. The 10 media markets to blanket with advertising include the pricey and politically crucial Chicago market.
In 2010, candidates for governor spent a total of $38.8 million. That replaced the $29.6 million record for spending that was set in 2006. However, former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich set the single candidate spending record in 2006 at $20 million. Kent Redfield, who is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, expects that both Quinn and Rauner could handily spend the total amount in the Blagojevich versus Topinka general election match up, about $24 million. “I don’t know what the upper limit is when you start wasting money in Illinois, but we certainly haven’t seen it yet,” says Redfield, who tracks spending for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform’s Sunshine Project. He says he thinks the total spending for both candidates, not including independent expenditures from outside groups, could be as high as $80 million or $100 million. “We’re in really uncharted territory here in terms of what the potential is.”
Laying out big cash paid off politically for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who spent $85 million in his 2010 bid. The Republican businessman, who was born in Illinois, funneled $73 million of his own money into his effort to defeat Democratic nominee Alex Sink. Scott, who listed his net worth at $218 million in 2010 and $83 million in 2013, broke Florida spending records. His campaign is reportedly prepared to spend $100 million this time around to defeat former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who swapped his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat since his time in the office.
Big spending does not always mean a candidate is a lock to win. Former eBay Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman spent $178.6 million, $144 million of it her own money, to run for governor in California in 2010. Whitman, a Republican, broke the previous national personal spending record of $109 million set by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he ran for his third term. Despite her more-than-well-funded campaign, Whitman lost to former governor Jerry Brown, who spent $36.5 million. Independent groups, primarily labor unions, also spent $26 million in support of Brown.
“She might as well have given everybody [in the state] 20 bucks. She probably would have gotten a better bang for her buck,” Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, says of Whitman. She could not quite have afforded to give $20 to each voter that cast a ballot in the race, but she could have given them each $10 out of her own money contributed to the campaign and still had more than $40 million left over. Quibbles over math aside, Mooney’s point stands. It is hard not to look at a candidate who shells out millions, including a good chunk of her or his personal wealth, and loses and not wonder how the cash could have potentially been better spent. Still, Whitman likely will not serve as a cautionary tale to Rauner or Quinn. Mooney says their race has many factors in common with the contests in other states that have played stage to gold-plated gubernatorial campaigns. “We got it all,” he says.
First is the presence of a big self-funder. It is rare that venture capitalist Rauner is mentioned in the media without a reference to his substantial wealth. Rauner has already broken one campaign finance record in the state. He has put more of his own money — $6 million — into his campaign than any other candidate for governor. Including his own cash, Rauner brought in $14 million before the March primary. The last candidate to hold the record was Chicago businessman Ron Gidwitz, whom Topinka beat in the 2006 primary. Gidwitz and his wife put $5.3 million into his bid. “Rauner’s got it, and the fact that people know that he can write that check is then going to drive the fundraising on the other side,” says Redfield. Rauner does not demur about his ability to fund his campaign, or to draw support from other deep-pocketed Republicans. He told the Chicago Sun-Times he was likely part of the “.01 percent.” Gidwitz is the head of finance and a co-chair of Rauner’s campaign. Rauner has even drawn financial support from donors with whom he does not see eye to eye on key issues. Jack Roeser, who has given millions to anti-abortion groups and candidates, is backing Rauner despite the fact that the candidate has said of abortion: “I believe in some common sense regulations and restrictions so it’s rare and safe, but I support a woman’s ability to decide.”
Rauner cites his wealth as a plus because he says it would keep him from becoming beholden to special interest groups. Rauner likes to say his financial independence means he “can’t be bought, bribed or intimidated.”
But his opponents say it allowed him to essentially buy the Republican primary without offering voters more than a few catch phrases in the deluge of political ads he was able to afford. “There’s no question he’s bought name identification, but it’s very superficial. Millions of dollars will do that,” says Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady, who won the Republican nomination in 2010. This year, Brady came in third after Rauner and Hinsdale Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard. For much of the race, Brady, Dillard and State Treasurer Dan Rutherford struggled to bring in more than a few million dollars among them. Dillard’s campaign got an injection of cash from unions backing him in the final weeks of the race. He was able to finish closer to Rauner than polling predicted, but the infusion of funds still left him trailing in campaign resources and ultimately votes.
Low voter turnout meant that Rauner spent almost $43 per primary vote with about $18 of that coming from his own bank account. Rauner has not yet hinted how much of his own money he would be willing to spend in the general election. But he says he made more than $53 million in personal wealth in 2012, which means he earned more than $1 million per week. “Rauner wrote $6 million worth of checks during the primary. I don’t know at what point he would feel like he was spending too much on his own campaign,” says Redfield. But with the amount of money he could potentially have at his disposal, Quinn has little choice but to fundraise like mad to try to compete.
In some ways, Quinn has cast himself as David to Rauner’s multimillionaire Goliath. “There’s no question he has more money than King Midas, but we’ve got more heart. I think we know how to organize grassroots campaigns,” Quinn said of Rauner in Chicago. But with no well-funded challengers in the primary, he has been able to sock away money for months. While Rauner spent much of what he brought in, Quinn had $9 million on hand after the primary. Rauner’s contributions to his campaign have also made fundraising easier for both candidates. Because he put more than $250,000 of his own money into his race, the caps for donors, which stand at $5,300 for individuals and $52,600 from political action committees, have come off. With the donor limits cast aside, Quinn has also received some big checks, including $100,000 from a national trade union political action committee and $750,000 from the Service Employees International Union.
That brings us to the next aspect of the race that could drive up spending — both campaigns are likely to focus on labor issues. Rauner mentioned the corruption of “big union bosses” so often during the primary that it seemed the phrase might end up on a campaign t-shirt. He has cited Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and former Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels as personal political heroes. Both are well-known, in part, for their successful efforts to weaken collective bargaining laws in their states. Since his primary win, he has backed off the rhetoric a bit, but many are less than convinced that Rauner’s stance has softened. Public employee union leaders are not happy with Quinn for being a vocal proponent for the new law that would cut their members’ retirement benefits. But at this point, they might be willing to support anyone for governor over a candidate they feel has vilified them and their members. “Rauner has effectively made the declaration of war against Illinois unions, and we’re going to be doing everything we can to defeat him,” Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan told theChicago Sun-Times.
“Rauner has energized big labor at all levels,” says Redfield. Because of that, Redfield says, he also draws the interest of those who would like to deal labor another defeat in the Midwest. When Gov. Walker was up for recall, outside groups on both sides spent a total of almost $76 million trying to influence the outcome of the election.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling opened the door to unlimited spending from outside groups, many of which are not required to disclose their donors. More than half of the money spent by such organizations in the Wisconsin recall election came from unidentified sources. Rauner has painted Quinn as a bumbling leader who wants to raise taxes and spend the money on big wasteful government. Such messages will likely resonate with political groups advocating for free-market principles to be used in the public sector.
A Governor Rauner would likely not be able to make sweeping changes to collective bargaining because Democrats are expected to keep solid majorities in both legislative chambers, but Redfield says that the optics of a Rauner win would still be important on the national level. “If you could get Illinois, which is a strong pro-labor state, even just symbolically, then you can put it in that anti-public-union category,” he says. On the other side of the equation, he says: “Big labor symbolically, I don’t think, can afford to lose Illinois in an election that’s implicitly and explicitly about labor. ... Because of the way that it would be framed and the way that it would be presented in the national debate and by talk show hosts, this would be one more example of the death of public labor and how the tide is turning against public employee unions.”
Because many Republican governors end up in the spotlight these days, however briefly, as a potential presidential candidate, some donors could be seeking to get in on the ground floor of a larger political career. “If he wins, he’s national immediately,” says Redfield. “When President Rauner takes the oath of office, they want to be there reminding him that they were supporting him from the beginning.” Redfield cautions that such ideas are pie-in-the-sky at this point in Rauner’s trajectory. “He could lose. He could make a mess out of running in Illinois. We don’t want to go too far into the flight of fancy.” But, he says: “People are looking to hitch their wagons to a star. They’re willing to make those kinds of investments,” especially if they have the money to spread investments across several races in the country.
Mooney says the fact that Quinn is an unpopular incumbent and that there could be a party shift in the governor’s office are other factors that Illinois has in common with states where the battle to be the chief executive has gotten quite pricey.
But he says that the key component for contributors to both candidates will be the continued feeling that they could win the race. He says this could be especially true for Quinn because unions are interested in other key governors’ elections during this cycle. “They’re strategic. They’re going to put their money where it will do the most good. If it’s not, bam! They’re off to Pennsylvania, or they’re off to Wisconsin.”
Mooney also notes that it is still early in the campaign, and either candidate could potentially flub his chances. While not exactly a smooth operator on the public stage, Quinn has been battle-tested in a close race in 2010. Rauner has not faced intense opposition research because his primary opponents simply did not have the resources. “Rauner’s been great so far as a candidate,” he says. “He hasn’t had the sort of full-on assault that Quinn groups are going to give him come fall.”
If the race remains close into the final days, expect to see the airwaves filled with Quinn and Rauner. Both started going negative on the very first days of the general election, and groups spending on their own to try to influence the race will likely do the same. “Will there be [voter] fatigue? Will there be disgust? Yes. But it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is who gets 50 percent plus one vote on November 4.” As Mooney points out, once a candidate has done what he can to get his voters to the polls on Election Day, a lot of the effort is about trying to get the other guy’s supporters to stay home.
Illinois Issues, May 2014