Illinois Politics Becomes the Plaything of the Rich

This year’s race for governor is the King Kong vs. Godzilla of big-money politics, rendering small donors irrelevant and impacting races down the ballot as well.

Explainer
Illustration by Jim Siergey for BGA

It used to be a damning put-down to accuse someone of trying to buy an election. But in Illinois, like no other state, what once was a stigma has become a defining characteristic of politics.

Rivals Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker are bankrolling campaigns almost exclusively with money from themselves and a select corps of ultra-wealthy donors as their contest for governor is on pace to blow through U.S. funding records for a non-presidential race.

Contributions of $100,000 or greater had filled 97 percent of Republican Rauner’s campaign treasury as of June 30, according to an analysis by Kent Redfield, an election finance expert at the University of Illinois at Springfield. For Pritzker, a Democrat who so far has almost solely underwritten his campaign, the comparable big-money share exceeds 99 percent.

Those percentages may change in the run-up to Election Day as traditional support groups representing organized labor, law firms and business political action committees get more engaged. Fundamentally, though, the Rauner/Pritzker battle demonstrates how big, singular-sourced money is no longer just the key to the realm in politics, it has become the realm.

“Across the nation you’ve had the Koch brothers, Soros and Bloomberg, as well as significant corporate and association money,” said Redfield, referring to billionaires famous for lavishing cash on right and left-wing candidates and causes. “In Illinois, it’s not a group of wealthy people but two or three of them.”

Redfield’s analysis shows the phenomenon has been building in recent election cycles and has trickled down ballot as well.

In 2010, just eight years and two governor’s races ago, jumbo donations comprised 43 percent of all money going to Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn. His Republican challenger, state Sen. Bill Brady, obtained 48 percent of his campaign cash through contributions of at least $100,000. By 2014, when Rauner toppled Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, the Republican kicked in $27.6 million of his own money and derived nearly 71 percent of his total cash haul from donations of $100,000 or greater.

In 2016, big donations from Rauner and others helped fuel a surge of $1 million-plus legislative races, with spending in five of them exceeding $5 million each. It also seeped into the historically low-hum race for state comptroller, with more than 90 percent of the $10.1 million in donations to losing Republican Leslie Munger linked to Rauner and two wealthy Republican backers of the governor, hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin and packaging products mogul Richard Uihlein.

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The wealthy are hardly new entrants to electoral politics. Former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine spent $60 million of his riches to win the U.S. Senate seat from New Jersey in 2000.

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman used $145 million of her own wealth in a losing 2010 bid to become California’s governor. And Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, spent a combined $260 million of his own money on three successful campaigns for mayor of New York City.

Those races, though, were financially lopsided affairs. Opponents, lacking deep pockets of their own, turned to more traditional and varied sources of campaign funding.

Now, billionaire Pritzker and Rauner, whose vast investment portfolio helped earn him $279 million his first two years as governor, are setting a new national standard with a King Kong versus Godzilla worthy battle of the bulging wallets.

Through June, with more than four months to go before Election Day, they had raised a combined $210 million for their campaigns--nearly $107 million of it Pritzker’s and more than $103 million for Rauner. While Pritzker is almost totally self-funding, the vast bulk of Rauner’s cash haul comes from just three sources: himself, Griffin and Uihlein, who earlier this year split with the governor and funded an unsuccessful challenger in the primary.

That puts the pair easily on target to break the non-presidential record of $252 million set in the 2010 race for governor of California, a state three times the size of Illinois.

The political implications could go beyond their contest and affect the financial future of the state Republican and Democratic parties in Illinois. It could send a clear message to small donors that their contributions don’t matter. And it could establish a template for future statewide office holders that says “only the wealthy need apply.”

So far in the race for governor, the small-dollar donor, the party faithful who send a couple hundred bucks because they want some skin in the game or some stake in democracy, have been rendered insignificant if not obsolete, buried under a historic deluge of multi-million-dollar contributions. Slightly over 1 percent of Rauner’s fundraising total this election cycle comes from donations of $1,000 or less, while for Pritzker its less than 0.5 percent. In 2010, Republican Brady took in 14 percent and Quinn 9 percent of their totals from small donations.

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“If I’m a donor of any size, I’m not sure I’d be motivated to give to a millionaire’s race,” said Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “Why would they need my $1,000, why would they need my $30,000? It’s just a drop in the bucket.”

The Rauner-Pritzker race is a stunning departure for Illinois — or any other state, for that matter. To be sure, wealthy political outsiders in Illinois have spent decades knocking at the door in pursuit of elected office.

Among players of recent vintage was boutique dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, a Republican who lost bids for governor and U.S. Senate before setting his sights lower, and successfully, on a seat in the state Senate. In 1998, banking heir Peter Fitzgerald, at the time a state senator, spent $12 million from his own pocket to win a U.S. Senate seat he held for one term.

This year, Democratic voters — with a push from their party leaders — responded to the big spending threat posed by Rauner with a challenger who is even richer. Pritzker, a venture capital investor and heir to the Hyatt hotels fortune, has a net worth estimated by Forbes magazine at $3.5 billion.

“This is the Democrats meeting fire with fire,” Redfield said. “As 2018 approached, Democrats began putting pressure on their supporters to match Rauner. They also had to deal with legislative races, so you could see the attractiveness of a Pritzker.”

Reflecting the political stakes, the rate of campaign fundraising in recent years has been spiking sharply — from $44.5 million in the 2010 race for governor, doubling to nearly $102 million in 2014 and doubling again so far this year.

Attention paid to the governor’s race overshadows the similarly galloping costs for legislative races. In 2016, there were 23 races for state house and senate that exceeded $1 million in costs, up from 14 in 2014 and seven in 2008.

Rauner wasn’t on the ballot in 2016, but he nonetheless poured $27.7 million into several Republican races, Redfield said. Among them was that race for state comptroller, which Munger lost to Democrat Susana Mendoza, who had been the city clerk of Chicago.

“It’s an interesting dilemma long term,” Redfield said. “If Rauner loses the Republicans have significant financial problems, if Rauner withdraws (his funding) and Griffin withdraws. You’ve got the same problem if Pritzker loses. Coming out of this, one party or the other is going to be significantly dependent on one individual or a couple of individuals. They’ve really changed the dynamic.”

About the Author
  • Tim Jones

    Tim Jones is a regular BGA freelance contributor who often writes about Illinois policy and economy.