When you see one on TV, you stab “mute” as fast as your thumb will fly.
On Facebook, you click away.
But how can you ignore political ads when campaigns are also carpet-bombing you on Hulu and YouTube, via robocalls and text messages, on highway billboards and grassy verges, and even in the form of a fake plumbing company?
It’s been mighty loud in Illinois ahead of the general election, and the temptation to block it all out will get even stronger between now and Nov. 6. But we’re talking about elected officials who work for you, making your laws, and deciding how much of your money they get to spend on your behalf.
So if you want to cast an informed vote, but you’ve been filtering out all things political, take heart. Here’s the skinny on the races WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team has been watching closely, and some places where you can learn more about them. If you want to learn even more, listen to On Background, WBEZ's politics podcast.
llinois Governor: The Big Kahuna
What’s the deal? Republican Bruce Rauner has been ranked one of the most vulnerable incumbent governors in the country as he faces Democrat JB Pritzker. Also on the ballot are Libertarian Kash Jackson and state Sen. Sam McCann, who is running as a member of the Conservative Party.
Why should I care? Lots of reasons, but let’s start with two words: your money.
Illinois’ steep financial problems are exacerbated by a declining population. The state has some of the worst bond ratings in the country, owes its public pension funds nearly $130 billion, and is licking its fiscal wounds from a two-year-long budget impasse between Rauner and the Democratic legislature that contributed to a spike in unpaid bills, which now tower at more than $7 billion. The next governor will have a hard time addressing these problems in a way that doesn’t affect your wallet.
What do I need to know? Rauner and Pritzker don’t agree on much. Rauner favors the current flat income tax system. Pritzker wants to adopt a sliding scale (“graduated”) approach, in which richer people pay a higher tax rate than poorer people (though he has repeatedly refused to talk details on exactly how much anybody would pay). Pritzker favors legalizing recreational marijuana; Rauner doesn’t. Both have really different ideas about public education and have clashed over Rauner’s handling of a series of deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at a state-run veterans’ home.
Outside the issues, this race has been getting loads of national attention because you’ve got a rich guy running against an even richer guy, making for one of the most expensive campaigns in U.S. history. To date, Rauner has given his campaign more than $50 million of his own money, while Pritzker — an heir to the Hyatt Hotel franchise — has given his campaign more than $171 million. In comparison, the $221 million the two candidates have contributed to their campaigns is more than the entire 2019 budget of Southern Illinois University, which stands at $185.7 million.
Illinois Attorney General: Ain’t Chicago ready for (police) reform?
What’s the deal? Nobody had expected an open race for attorney general in 2018, but here we are. Downstate Urbana attorney Erika Harold is the Republican facing Democratic state Sen. Kwame Raoul. The Libertarian candidate is Bubba Harsy.
Why should I care? As Illinois’ chief legal officer, the next attorney general could have a big role in Chicago’s police reform efforts in the wake of the Laquan McDonald saga. They’ll also decide whether Illinois continues to fight (or starts to follow) Trump administration policies, and they’ve traditionally played a role in protecting consumers from data-breached tech companies and predatory mortgage lenders.
What do I need to know? Current Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued the city of Chicago to try and force police reforms through a legal agreement called a consent decree. Whoever replaces her will help implement those reforms — a role both Harold and Raoul say they’d embrace. Harsy has questioned whether the decree would be effective in holding “bad-acting” cops accountable.
Otherwise, Raoul and Harold have tried to define their campaigns through two other perennial Illinois issues: public corruption and public safety. Harold and Harsy have vowed to use the AG’s soapbox to go harder after corrupt politicians (a role traditionally filled by the feds) and Raoul has made fighting gun and domestic violence a top priority. The two major party candidates are split on whether to continue a criminal investigation into the state’s handling of the Quincy Legionnaires’ crisis — Harold wouldn't commit, while Raoul believes the investigation is warranted.
Illinois’ 6th Congressional District: A Republican in Clinton Country
What’s the deal? Democrat and first-time candidate Sean Casten is running against incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam. Casten is a clean energy businessman, and Roskam has represented the 6th Congressional District, covering the west and northwest suburbs, since 2007.
Why should I care? Even if you don’t live in the district (and can’t vote in this race), you might care about which party controls Congress. As they seek to recapture the House, Dems are spending lots of money to oust Roskam, who is one of 25 Republican congressmen in districts that voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
What do I need to know? Taxes loom large in this race, as Roskam was a key architect of the Republican tax overhaul. He says the law has given a boost to businesses in his district, and that the growing deficit is necessary now to bring change in the future. Casten says the overhaul favors big corporations. Roskam has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The congressman says he’d vote to protect people with pre-existing conditions, but hasn’t offered details. Casten wants universal health care with multiple payers. Since the start of his campaign, Casten — a scientist — has stressed the urgency to address climate change, like making changes to the Clean Air Act.
Finally, it’s impossible to ignore the Trump Factor in this race. Casten calls out Roskam for voting with the president 94 percent of the time, and Roskam claims his opponent has been playing dirty politics by comparing Trump to Osama bin Laden.
Illinois’ 14th Congressional District: To repeal or not to repeal?
Why should I care? Again, it’s about who controls Congress. The 14th is considered a toss-up this year, but has been a longtime Republican stronghold. Democrat Underwood has backing and resources from national Dems who want to flip control of the House.
What do I need to know? Underwood’s campaign is heavily focused on preserving the Affordable Care Act, a law she helped implement as an advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services under Obama. She returned to her hometown of Naperville just months before filing to run against Hultgren, who voted for the Republican plan to repeal and replace the ACA. However, Hultgren also says he’s always supported plans that would protect people with pre-existing conditions. (Underwood, herself, says she has a pre-existing heart condition.) Hultgren supported President Donald Trump’s tax overhaul, but disagrees with Trump on immigration and trade tariffs.
Oh, and a fun fact: Underwood was one of seven candidates to get a Ben & Jerry’s flavor named in her honor this year.
Cook County Board races: A Blue(r) Wave?
What’s the deal? There are only four Republicans on the 17-member Cook County Board of Commissioners. In an unusual move, the Cook County Democratic Party (led by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle) is targeting three of them in the 14th, 15th, and 17th districts. (Check here to find your district.)
Why should I care? The bottom line: They’re your taxpayer dollars. And there’s a lot at stake. With a budget set to be nearly $6 billion in 2019, the county gets some of your property and sales taxes for things like the county jail, courts, forest preserves, and public health system. County commissioners also create new taxes. (Remember the dreaded soda tax?)
What do I need to know? The Cook County Democratic Party is throwing big money behind three candidates to flip the county board nearly entirely blue for the first time in at least 20 years. Why? Because there’s momentum. About three-quarters of Cook County voters went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the Dems hope to ride an expected national blue wave to clinch the local races. Whoever wins will have to figure out how to deal with a potentially growing budget deficit and a public health care system under increasing pressure.
Cook County Assessor
Why should I care? This race isn’t competitive (Democrats are heavily favored to win in a county as blue as Cook), but the assessor’s job is important. If you live in Cook County — as a renter or homeowner — this race is almost guaranteed to hit your bottom line. The assessor is in charge of figuring out how to divvy up the property tax burden among homeowners. If you care about your property tax bill (or how much you pay in rent), pay attention.
What do I need to know? This relatively obscure and oh-so-wonky post got vaulted into the spotlight last year following a Chicago Tribune/ProPublica investigation that found wealthier property owners are paying less than their fair share of property taxes, while poor and minority communities pay more. This disparity was traced back to former Assessor Joe Berrios’ property valuation practices. (Such was the uproar from the investigation that Berrios lost the assessor’s seat and his post as top boss in the storied Cook County Democratic Party.) Kaegi has vowed to make the system more fair, and he’ll face pressure from pols to do that, and fast.
Indiana U.S. Senate
Why should I care?
This is one of a handful of Senate races being watched nationally, because there's a chance the seat will flip. But this one isn't part of any "blue wave." In fact, it's the opposite. Plus, the mega-contentious hearings over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court got a lot of Americans (of all political stripes) thinking about the partisan nose-count in the senate.
What do I need to know? The GOP thinks Donnelly is vulnerable because he’s a Dem in a state that went strong for Trump in 2016. His vote against confirming Kavanaugh has caused him some headaches in a deeply red state.
Politically, this race could be interesting because there’s been an inversion of Indiana’s usual politics. Steelworkers in Northwest Indiana who traditionally vote Democratic could go Republican because they like Trump’s tariffs of imported steel. And traditionally Republican farmers could vote Democratic because they’re getting hurt by those same tariffs.
Donnelly is big on environmental protections while Braun supports Trump’s call to reduce the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency. Donnelly says he considers himself to be anti-abortion, though he says women should be able to obtain the procedure in cases or rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk. Braun, meanwhile, says he’d support legislation that says life begins at conception.
A Democratic takeover of the Senate seems unlikely, but this is one race with the potential to nudge the balance.
Reporting for this story came from Tony Arnold, Dave McKinney, Claudia Morell, Michael Puente, Kristen Schorsch, Carrie Shepherd, Becky Vevea, and Alex Keefe.
Editors note: In the interest of transparency, Chicago Public Media (CPM) reminds its audience that we receive philanthropic support from The Pritzker Foundation. JB Pritzker, who is a candidate for Illinois governor, is not involved in The Pritzker Foundation and does not contribute to it. He and his wife lead a separate philanthropic foundation, the Pritzker Family Foundation, from which CPM has never received any funding. CPM also receives support from the Casten Family Foundation. Sean Casten is not a director of the family foundation and has not contributed to it.
Images courtesy of the candidates and the Cook County government and Illinois State Senate websites.