Here are the seven things you need to know about the race between incumbent Ken Dunkin and challenger Juliana Stratton.
1) Five million and counting— this isn’t unusual just for Illinois.
Steve Passwaiter monitors political spending on TV for a national consultancy called Kantar Media. I told him what the candidates were spending on TV ads here, hundreds of thousands for spots on Judge Judy, Scandal, The Voice.
PASSWAITER: That is a fair amount of money. That is a fair amount of money. That is a fair amount of money.
2) This isn’t about the 5th district— or these two candidates.
It’s part of a political war for the state’s future: that war is also why we have no state budget.
Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has been fighting the Democrats who control the legislature over what he calls his Turnaround Agenda.
At the start, Democrats had veto-proof majorities in both houses.
But in the House, Speaker Mike Madigan’s supermajority had only a one-vote margin.
Then, last fall, Ken Dunkin broke rank— twice.
He’s getting millions in support from the Governor’s allies. His challenger’s money mainly comes from unions and Democratic politicians.
3) Rauner and a few mega-donors have prepared for this war by laying aside unusually huge political funds.
In the six months following Rauner’s election, groups linked with his agenda put together at least $42 million in political funds.
The money came from nine households, including Rauner’s.
Edwin Bender runs the National Institute on Money in State Politics. He says independent expenditure groups— SuperPACs, like the ones supporting Ken Dunkin, are common.
“[But] for a candidate to wield that kind of independent-spending hammer, by themselves, or with a group of friends,” Bender said. “We haven’t seen that.”
In the last few weeks, Rauner has personally donated another $4 million.
4) It’s not just this race. There’s also a super-duper expensive primary in Springfield.
Senator Sam McCann voted against the governor last year on a bill involving unions.
Democrats were going to win that vote anyway, and— because it’s Springfield— tons of state employees and union members, live in McCann’s district.
The governor’s allies have spent more than $3 million attacking McCann and promoting his opponent— more than they’ve spent on the Ken Dunkin race here.
And TV ads are a lot cheaper in Springfield than they are in Chicago.
5) But there are just a couple races like this, because of how politics works in Illinois.
It’s a team sport: Players in both parties collect money that they can give to a teammate who runs into trouble.
They can afford to, because elected officials also draw the map to create safe districts.
How safe? In about 80 percent of legislative elections, there is only one candidate. From either party.
“The vast majority of people in this state have no one to vote for,” said Cynthia Canary.
Canary works with a group called Independent Maps, which is trying to change the way the state draws legislative maps.
So, couple districts it’s a life-or-death fight,” she said. “For the rest of us voters, we’re not even being given a choice.”
Worth noting: Changing the political map-making process is part of the governor’s Turnaround Agenda.
6) Even for Rauner, this is real money.
The governor put millions into his own campaign. And since then, he’s put another $16 million into state political funds.
His net worth has been reported at $700 million, so he’ll still eat.
But I was curious about how that $16 million compares to the amount of his own money he’d put on the line in his previous line of work, in private equity.
Steve Kaplan is a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He studies private equity. He says it’s unlikely Rauner would have ever sunk this much of his own money into a single deal.
“This would be a big bet, I think,” Kaplan said. “He would be putting this much money into companies overall, but this would be a big bet.”
And unlike a private-equity deal, there’s no chance he’ll make a profit on it.
7) It doesn’t get better any time soon.
“If people are expecting the primary to solve something, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Kent Redfield. He’s is a retired political science professor from the University of Illinois in Springfield.
Redfield sees the mega-spending on these primaries as a signal that both sides may be willing to keep fighting until after the general election in November.
“This is NOT a good sign, in terms of sudden reason breaking out in Springfield, and everybody coming to some kind of compromise and accommodation.”
For state universities, social service agencies, and others that have been waiting for the state to resolve its budget issues, that could mean a lot more waiting.
Dan Weissman is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @danweissman.