Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has donated millions of dollars toward campaigns that could swing some state House and Senate seats to the Republicans.
And Democrats are tapping their big donors — unions and attorneys — to match Rauner.
But all that money, on both sides, is flowing to just a few races that are actually competitive, like Illinois’ 23rd State Senate District in DuPage County.
The district, just south of O’Hare International Airport, was a Republican seat until Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, won it four years ago.
“I was probably the No. 1 target the moment I won this seat,” Cullerton said.
Cullerton is being challenged by Republican Seth Lewis of Bartlett — and both are bringing in the money. Campaign finance records show Lewis has received $1.7 million in the past three months, while Cullerton has brought in $1.5 million during that time.
Lewis said he is spending a lot of the money to get his name out there.
“There are more people to hear our message so that when we go to the door, people know who Seth Lewis is,” he said.
The $1.5 million raised by Cullerton is nearly 10 times what he raised in the final months of his 2012 campaign.
“Obviously we’re able to get our message out a little bit better this time,” Cullerton said. “Mail is something we’ve been able to invest in.”
That means in the internet age, a lot of the campaign money is still devoted to your mailbox.
Uber driver Steve McKee, who was waiting to see if anyone needed a ride at the Roselle Metra station, said he tunes out political ads.
“It goes from my mailbox to the garbage,” McKee said. “Doesn’t even make it in the house.”
However, McKee said he remembers talking to candidates face-to-face — sort of.
“I got somebody’s sign in my front yard only because they came to the door,” said McKee, who couldn’t recall the name on that sign.
Tom Bowen, a Democratic strategist based in Chicago, said door-knocking in which statehouse candidates actually walk the district and talk to voters is still widely seen as the most effective use of their time.
“The winner of campaigns for state rep and state senate are the candidates that not only knock the most doors, but are the best in those interactions with voters,” Bowen said.
That means one of the most effective campaign strategies is one that’s free. But a candidate can’t physically knock on 80,000 doors, which is why mailers and TV commercials become so important.
Bowen said mail isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
“When you go tear up those credit card applications, these are the biggest corporations in America with the largest budgets to spend, and they still do it, right? That’s cause it works,” he said.
Bowen added even if a voter like McKee only sees the mailer for one second before throwing it away, that second is still spent thinking about the message the campaign wants to send.
“At the end of the day, mail is extremely well-targeted to the exact number of voters who will show up in the election, and with modern advances in our voter files, we have a pretty good idea of who the swing voters are so we can target it even better,” Bowen said.
TV ads are similarly targeted.
This year, you may have seen ads for state candidates from another district. That may seem like a waste of money, but Bowen said more people in the district will see those ads during higher profile programs. He added that broadcast TV commercials is where the campaign spending will remain — at least for the near future.
“Until that sort of changes, where you know, on Netflix or something like that, you can run an ad on it,” Bowen said. “TV is still gonna be the medium that we choose to communicate.”
He said TV is still what targeted voters absorb — even more than internet ads.
So if you are tired of seeing political commercials on TV, the campaigns are only doing it because they know you’re still watching.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.