Wealthy Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has invested tens of millions of his own money toward little known Illinois House and Senate races.
Rauner’s campaign fund has contributed at least $33 million to help Republican candidates — and most of that money comes from Rauner himself, according to campaign finance records.
As a first-time candidate for public office, Rauner won the election with the help of $27 million of his own money.
When elected in 2014, Rauner claimed he could improve the state’s finances, bond ratings and underfunded pensions.
This year, he is using the fortune he made as a venture capitalist to try and cut into the Democratic supermajorities in the state House and Senate.
“It’s very important that Illinois become a two-party state,” Rauner said this year. “Democracy doesn’t work on a one-party basis. One of the reasons we got into such big financial problems is we were a one-party state for quite a while and we’ve always had unbalanced budgets.”
Since taking office, Rauner has clashed with Democratic leaders. Things between the two sides were so bad there was no full state budget approved for a almost year.
If Rauner’s money can help flip a few statehouse seats to Republican, Democrats would lose their veto-proof majorities.
“Right now, we don’t have competition,” Rauner said. “We don’t have competing ideas. We have a system that’s rigged to protect incumbents.”
Seth Lewis, a Republican who has benefited from Rauner’s generosity, is running for the state Senate seat representing Chicago’s western suburbs, including Villa Park and Bartlett. He has raised $1.7 million in the last three months.
Much of Lewis’s money has been funneled to his campaign from the Illinois Republican Party. This year, Rauner’s campaign fund has given the Illinois GOP $29 million. Democrats funnel money to support their candidates in a similar way.
“Every dollar that we get we try and spend as wisely as possible,” Lewis said.
Lewis, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Tom Cullerton of Villa Park, is spending much of this money on sending mailers to voters and airing expensive TV ads.
“Has (the money) had an impact? Absolutely,” Lewis said. “But in my particular case, I think it’s just been able to keep us even with our opponent.”
Lewis claims all that money from Rauner is helping Republicans stay even with the Democrats’ fundraising. Over the last three months, Cullerton raised about $1.5 million from labor unions, attorneys — traditional Democratic funders — along with Democratic leaders.
Cullerton said it’s the Democrats who are trying to keep up with the Republicans. He won the Senate seat four years ago with a fraction of the cash he’s spent this year.
“With the amount of money the governor has put in, I don’t know if anybody can keep up with the kind of money that he’s got and the kind of money he’s moving around the state,” Cullerton said.
Denise Roth-Barber, the managing director of the National Institute on Money in Politics, said Illinois isn’t unique in the large amounts of money going toward down-ballot races this year. She said Florida saw its governor, Rick Scott, give a lot of money in the past for campaigns other than his own.
But Roth-Barber said that still doesn’t come close to what Rauner is spending this year.
“It’s definitely a new record,” Roth-Barber said.
And once this election is over, some Illinois House and Senate seats might flip, but Democrats will still likely keep their majorities.
Several state House and Senate candidates are running unopposed, which means for all the money spent this year, the war between Rauner and Illinois Democrats is likely to continue.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.