As this wretched excuse for a presidential election staggers to an end, the time has come for me to tally up the costs—both political and financial—of Donald Trump’s candidacy for Republicans in Illinois.
Not that I’m weeping over their woes. As far as I’m concerned, it’s been all downhill for the GOP since the days of Abraham Lincoln.
All in all, it looks as though Trump’s position at the head of the ticket will probably cost the party a Senate seat, the comptroller’s race, and millions and millions of Governor Bruce Rauner’s dollars.
I’m definitely not weeping for him. Good golly, the man’s got more money than Mammon. At least, it seems there’s no limit to the millions he and his antiunion pals will spend to prove that they have larger, uh, hands than Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan. As Trump might put it. But that price went up to counter what many are calling the Trump effect.
Before I dive in, a word or two on behalf of Trump. Yes, yes, get ready—I’m about to say something sort of nice about the Donald.
The party’s problems are not all his fault. OK, so he’s a bigoted blowhard who alienated half the electorate with his “locker room” banter about pussy grabbing. Apparently, Trump didn’t realize that women got the right to vote in 1920.
And, yes, obviously, with all things being equal, many Illinois voters will instinctively vote for any down-the-ticket Democrat on the grounds that candidates with a D next to their name won’t be for Trump. So several Republicans may sink with the Trump ship—poor babies.
Beyond that, the problems of Illinois Republicans are largely of their own making. In short, they’re too wimpy. Afraid of agitating their rabid right-wing base, they cling to antediluvian policies and politics that frighten moderates and independents. (Curiously, the Clinton/Emanuel Democrats play a similar game in reverse, routinely alienating their lefty base by diluting their progressive policies in order to rake in corporate cash.)
As exhibit A in the Republican’s predicament, consider these recent remarks by Dan Proft in a revealing interview with reporter Kerry Lester of the Daily Herald.
Proft is a political strategist and conservative talk show host who’s emerged as Rauner’s go-to-guy running key elections across the state.
“If the Republican Party is not the party of the suburbs, we will never be the majority party in the state again,” Proft told Lester. “We have got to reestablish our leadership in the suburbs.”
That makes sense.
But having said that, he goes on to say this about Senator Mark Kirk: “Kirk’s problem is he declared war on the conservative base of the party. When you basically tell conservatives if they disagree with you on the marriage issue then you’re a bigot, and if they disagree with you on the junk science behind climate change . . . that they’re Luddites . . . and down the line of issues, at some point you reach critical mass.”
Oh, brother. Look, I’m no fan of Kirk, who manages to insult someone almost every time he opens his mouth—most recently, his opponent Tammy Duckworth, with his snide comment about her being biracial. But it’s hard enough for a moderate to walk the party’s ideological tightrope without some guy like Proft jiggling the line.
Kirk certainly can’t pick up moderate or independent voters by opposing gay marriage and dismissing global warming as “junk science.”
Many of these coveted suburban voters support marriage equality and believe global warming’s for real. You can’t win them over by pretending they’re from rural Alabama. Not that there’s anything wrong with rural Alabama.
Kirk faces a similar dilemma with regard to Trump. No matter what he does, he’s going to agitate someone. So he waffles.
First he was for Trump. Then he was against him. He talked about writing in David Petraeus or Colin Powell. Now he says he doesn’t want to talk about the GOP nominee at all.
He’d have a hard time beating a war hero like Duckworth anyway. But the Trump effect makes it even more unlikely.
Meanwhile, state comptroller Leslie Munger faces a similar problem in her race against Chicago city clerk Susana Mendoza.
The comptroller’s main function is to disperse checks to state employees and vendors. Rauner appointed Munger to the job after the previous comptroller, Judy Barr Topinka, died in office in 2014. Mendoza and Munger are running in a special election to fill out the last two years of Topinka’s term.
This race, for a relatively obscure statewide office, has become yet another proxy battle in Rauner’s fight with Madigan.
That’s the fight in which Rauner won’t pass a budget unless Madigan passes union-busting legislation.
Munger jumped into the fray last spring when she announced that she wouldn’t disperse monthly paychecks to state legislators until they passed a budget.
As a result, legislators have only been paid twice since then. That’s not so bad for those who have second jobs, such as DuPage County Republican Jim Durkin. He’s a senior partner with the downtown law firm Arnstein & Lehr. (Durkin’s in the firm’s “municipal and government legal services” division, by the way, which, among other things, offers legal representation on tax increment financing, according to the firm’s website. Looks like Chicago Democrats aren’t the only ones feeding from the TIF trough.)
I’ll get back to Durkin in a minute. But as for Munger’s legislative paycheck thing, it’s been tough on northwest-side state rep Jaime Andrade. His main source of income comes from being a legislator, and since Munger cracked down on the legislators’ pay, Andrade’s been driving for Uber to make ends meet.
I guess you could say Andrade wouldn’t have to drive for Uber if he—and a few of his Democratic colleagues—just caved in to Rauner’s demands. But that’s like arguing if he wants to get paid, he’s got to sell out the unions.
It’s an interesting spin on pay-to-play politics—a great tradition in Illinois. But in this case, it’s get played to get paid.
Munger’s made her tough-on-legislators stance the cornerstone of her campaign—though Mendoza’s also vowing not to pay legislators until a budget’s passed. So if stiffing state legislators is your thing, it’s kind of a wash.
Instead, in search of an issue that might get voters to give a hoot about this race, Mendoza’s hammering Munger on Trump.
At the moment, Munger won’t say whom she supports in the presidential election. She says she’s too busy to even pay attention to Trump or Clinton.
“I’m really working very hard to stay out of the issues at the top of the ticket,” Munger said during the debate.
Oh, if she were only as tough on Trump as she is on poor Jaime Andrade.
Mendoza hasn’t been impressed with Munger’s explanations. “Let’s be honest,” Mendoza said during the recent comptroller’s debate. “It takes half a nanosecond to know where you should be with Donald Trump.”
For his part, Rauner clearly views the comptroller’s office as a valuable chess piece in his fight with Madigan. Citizens for Rauner, the governor’s campaign fund-raising arm, donated $1 million to Munger’s campaign. And Bruce’s two political sidekicks—hedge fund magnate Ken Griffin and businessman Richard Uihlein—have donated $5 million and $2
In other words, Munger has raised more than $8.6 million for a relatively meaningless statewide position. Mendoza’s raised about $2.4 million, for a combined total of $11 million in this race.
“That’s an unprecedented amount for comptroller,” says Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a watchdog group.
In 2014, Topinka and her Democratic opponent, Sheila Simon, only raised about $1.2 million combined, according to Brune.
It’s hard to say how much money Rauner and his cronies will spend in this election cycle, because they’re not done spending it. The final disclosure statements won’t be released until January.
But the Tribune recently estimated that Rauner has already spent about $46 million of his own money—a staggering amount considering he’s not even on the ballot.
But, wait, I can hear you right now: You’re wondering, didn’t the state pass a campaign finance reform law that caps contributions?
Please, people. One more time—never use the word “reform” in relation to Illinois or Chicago politics.
Yes, the state passed a campaign finance law in 2009 that limits individual contributions to $5,400 a year. But the law’s riddled with loopholes.
For instance, a candidate can blow by the caps if he, she, or a relative wants to self-finance the campaign by loaning it more than $250,000. (The same applies to donations, but why donate your money when you can lend it to yourself and get paid back?)
Sure enough, Munger sidestepped the contribution cap in September, when her husband—John Munger, an attorney—lent $260,000 to her campaign.
Obviously, the Mungers don’t have to drive for Uber to make ends meet.
There are other clever ways to dodge the contribution cap—mostly having to do with political action committees.
This stuff is as convoluted and devious as any TIF scheme devised by Mayor Daley.
Take the machinations involving legislator Jim Durkin, for example—I told you I’d get back to him.
On October 5, Turnaround Illinois—a PAC affiliated with Rauner—reported that it had purchased about $101,000 worth of radio spots for Durkin, one of Rauner’s key statehouse allies.
Durkin’s running unopposed. So he doesn’t need radio spots, as it’s hard to lose when you have no opponent—even with Trump at the top of the ticket.
But by buying those radio spots, Turnaround Illinois took advantage of another loophole, in which caps on legislative campaigns are lifted if a PAC spends more than $100,000 on a candidate.
Sure enough, after that, the big money rolled in. On October 12, Citizens for Rauner donated $3 million to Durkin’s campaign. A few days later, Rauner and his wife, Diana, kicked in $9 million, and Griffin donated $3 million.
That’s $15 million worth of donations to a candidate who, just to remind you, has no opponent.
Why would the Republican Party do this? Well, Durkin turned right around and donated $9 million to the House Republican Organization and $3 million to the Illinois Republican Party.
The Illinois Republican Party then donated $1.5 million to the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee.
And eventually, Republican house and senate organizations funneled money to Rauner’s legislative lackeys all over the state, some of whom are actually in contested races, unlike ol’ Durkin.
By financing their campaigns, Rauner pretty much controls their legislative votes. And they say Madigan runs a machine?
This money will be used for commercials and mailings that hail these legislators as heroes in the fight against Madigan—without, of course, mentioning that they come from the same party as Trump.
Even if these legislators lose, Rauner wins, sort of, ’cause his spending will force Democrats to spend the money they raise, largely from unions.
Sure enough, a Democratic-affiliated PAC called Leading Illinois for Tomorrow has raised more than $6 million and spent about $3.2 million, largely on ads linking Rauner to Trump. That group gets much of its money from unions and wealthy Democratic donors. Hey, the Democrats have a few too.
To fight back, Rauner will probably raise more money to buy more commercials linking various Democrats to Madigan.
Apparently, Madigan’s almost as horrifying to the Republican base as gay marriage and science.
It’s an arms race. Their connection to Trump may put Illinois Republicans at a disadvantage this year, but Rauner still has an advantage over Madigan. ‘Cause, let’s face it: unions will never have as much disposable cash as billionaires.
And whatever happens in Illinois in 2016, it’s all just a prelude to the mother of all showdowns: 2018, when Rauner will run for reelection. Who knows how much money he’ll spend on that race—or how many campaign financing loopholes he’ll exploit?
As I write this, Hillary Clinton’s ahead in the polls, though her lead’s been shrinking, courtesy of the latest Anthony Weiner-related revelations in her e-mail saga. I know—just when you thought the presidential race couldn’t get any weirder.
Should she hang on for the win, look for state Republicans to blame their setbacks on Trump. Should he win, they’ll probably pretend they were with him all along. And so the tightrope walk continues. v