Experts discuss ‘unprecedented’ level of spending in Illinois campaigns

Nora Shelly, City Editor

Huge amounts of money are being poured into some Illinois state house races, but it may not end up making a difference due to the impact of Donald Trump’s candidacy on down-ballot races, several political experts said at a panel Monday.

The discussion featured journalists and political scientists discussing dynamics of Illinois politics during the 2016 election cycle. The event was organized by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonpartisan group that aims to increase accountability in government officials, promote civic involvement and address the role of money in politics.

According to one of the ICPR’s data programs on money in politics, Illinois Sunshine, several state house and office races have reached an unexpected level of spending.

“We’re seeing unprecedented amounts of money being pumped into these tiny races,” said Natasha Korecki, panelist and Politico Illinois reporter. “(But) in the end it might do nothing to help them gain a seat just because of the dynamics of this election.”

The rhetoric of the presidential campaign — and particularly the divisive campaign run by Republican nominee Donald Trump — will have an effect on other races, several panelists said.

For Republicans, turnout may be an issue, said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

“As this Trump thing looks to be dissembling … some Republicans may just stay home,” he said. “That will hurt all down-ballot Republicans.”

Yepsen said polls show Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are nearly tied among older, white, uneducated women, while in 2008 that same cohort voted Republican by “two digits” more than they voted Democrat.

Down-ballot Republicans may not be able to do anything about the effect Trump may have on voting, Korecki said, but that hasn’t stopped Illinois Republicans and Gov. Bruce Rauner from duking it out with the state’s Democrats and House Speaker Michael Madigan.

“This is really a proxy war, the fight in the General Assembly and the comptroller between Bruce Rauner and the Republicans and House Speaker Mike Madigan…mostly it’s a war between Mike and Bruce,” said Kate Grossman, director of the Fellows Program at the University of Chicago, who moderated the panel.

There are several hotly-contested state house races in Illinois, most of them outside of the Chicagoland region, the panelists said. The results could break the Democratic supermajority in the state house.

If comptroller candidate Susana Mendoza — the Democrat in the race — beats incumbent Republican Leslie Munger, the governor would have to work with someone outside his own party in handling the state budget crisis. The office of the comptroller — who wasn’t under as much scrutiny before the state budget crisis — is responsible for sending out checks from the state to businesses or social services groups.

However important the comptroller race seems to be, the individual candidates probably won’t matter to the regular voter, said Amanda Vinicky, the statehouse bureau chief of NPR Illinois.

“This is one of those races where I think it could be framed as … Mendoza trying to tie Munger to Rauner or Munger trying to tie Mendoza to Madigan — maybe that works with the average voter, maybe not,” Vinicky said.

The comptroller race, however, is the “most visible” the state has ever seen, said Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

The panel also discussed the Senate race between Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill). Duckworth currently leads in the polls, but the race — the results of which may decide which party controls the Senate — has been tight throughout the entire campaign.

In a break from other races in Illinois, both Duckworth and Kirk’s campaigns are keeping a low profile, with the candidates rarely seen in the Chicago area, Korecki said.

The Senate campaign is reminiscent of the presidential race, Mooney said.

“Neither one has very many positives; it’s all about the negatives in the other one,” he said.

Korecki said Kirk has more problems than Duckworth and that the few debates planned may limit what voters know about the candidates.

Duckworth’s lead in the polls may not be totally her doing, Korecki said.

“A lot of Duckworth’s numbers can be attributed to the fact that…Hillary is at the top of the ticket,” she said. “We’re going to see a big turnout with women.”

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