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Most Expensive State Rep. Race In History ‘Not A Good Sign’ For Budget Standoff

The Democratic primary for state representative in Illinois’ 5th District is the most expensive legislative race in state history. And the only one to draw an endorsement from President Barack Obama.

Here are the five things you need to know about the race between incumbent Ken Dunkin and challenger Juliana Stratton.

(Spoiler alert: It probably means bad news for anyone hoping the state’s budget mess will end soon.)

1)  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 Illinois has 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 ranktwice.

He’s getting millions in support from the Governor’s allies. His challenger’s money mainly comes from unions and Democratic politicians.

(Source: WBEZ analysis of data from the Illinois State Board of Elections.)

2) Rauner and a few mega-donors have prepared for this war by putting 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.

Rauner is “sending a very powerful message,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “If anyone wants to fight him, he’s going to swamp themwith his money and his voice, and his message."

While independent expenditure groups—super PACs, like the ones supporting Ken Dunkin—are common, Bender says that the scale and the concentration in this race are something new.

“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.  

Candidates have also spent money to run ads on prime-time TV across the Chicago area on programs like Scandal, The Voice, and Blackish.

3) It’s not just this race. There’s also a super-duper expensive primary in Springfield.

Republican 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—lots 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—and TV ads are a lot cheaper in Springfield than they are in Chicago.

4) 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 so-called “safe” seats, so most districts aren’t in play.

How safe? This time out, two-thirds of districts have primary candidates from only one party.

And in almost 90 percent of those districts, the incumbent is the only candidate.

“The vast majority of people in this state have no one to vote for,” said Cynthia Canary, who works with a group called Independent Maps, which is trying to change the way the state draws legislative maps.

“[In a] 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 Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda.

5) All this spending probably means more state budget pain.

No matter which candidates win in this week’s primaries, the results are unlikely to bring progress in the budget stalemate.

That’s the view of one long-time political watcher, Kent Redfield, a retired political-science professor from the University of Illinois at Springfield. He has studied money in Illinois politics for decades.

“If people are expecting the primary to solve something, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Redfield said.

He 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 reason suddenly 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 Weissmann is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @danweissmann.

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