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Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015 12:19 am

Legislative competition up for 2016

 One of the realities of Illinois legislative politics is that our state’s system tends to discourage competition.

Byzantine ballot access laws, a highly partisan legislative district map-drawing process, heavily concentrated populations of partisan voters in Chicago (Democrats) and in the collar counties and Downstate, (Republicans) along with often tireless work by incumbents and political parties at the state and local levels to “discourage” opposition all combine to help tamp down the number of competitive races.

The net result is that Illinois has some of the fewest numbers of challenged state legislative races in the country – just 39 percent in 2014, which put us in the bottom fifth of the nation. By contrast, nearby Michigan saw a 100 percent challenge rate in the 2014 general election, and the rates in both California and Minnesota were above 90 percent.

The state’s 2014 rate may be higher next year. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s vast personal cash reserves and his access to his many wealthy friends means the Republican Party can widen the playing field. The Democrats are also looking at doing the same thing, fielding candidates in districts that they have previously avoided (GOP Rep. Bill Mitchell, for instance, has a pretty decent general election opponent for the first time in a long while).

While that’s good for politics, is it good for government?

It almost assuredly is a good thing in the long run. Far too many people think they own their districts. Competition is good.

But in the here and now, these campaigns are just one more headache to deal with in the ongoing governmental impasse. Legislators who aren’t accustomed to challenges may not be all that willing to take the tough votes necessary if the leaders ever come to a deal.

Indeed, we could see a tail wagging the dog scenario. For instance, as a member of House Democratic leadership, Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion) has taken a ton of votes that his conservative southern Illinois constituents probably wouldn’t love, including a vote for the 2011 income tax hike.

But Bradley is now a Tier One target. And unless we see a massive political truce with pledges to not use tough votes against incumbents (as we did in the old days under Republican governors Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan) it’s probably safe to assume that Bradley and many, many others aren’t going to want to be a part of any tax-hike solution.

The Illinois Republican Party compounded the problem the other day by blasting Bradley and Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg) for standing with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan against taxpayers.

The Republican Party accuses Madigan, and by extension Bradley and Phelps and others, of publicly favoring a return to the 5 percent state income tax. They conveniently “forget” that Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he will raise taxes once he gets his “Turnaround Agenda” passed.

And it’s not just the general election that’s complicating matters. Look at what happened not long ago when conservative activist Dan Proft examined GOP Rep. David Harris’ nominating petitions to see if he could kick the Arlington Heights legislator off the ballot. Proft pointed out that Harris had “previously voiced support for tax increases.”

Harris, in turn, noted Gov. Rauner’s support for hiking taxes to balance the budget, but the message was clear: Proft controls a big pot of campaign money and Republicans need to beware of crossing him.

The ILGOP’s “#TaxHikeMike” assault could even play out in Speaker Madigan’s own legislative district.

Madigan’s Democratic primary opponent Jason Gonzales has a campaign message that appears specifically designed to attract money from wealthy people who are fed up with the Speaker’s longtime dominance. Some Democrats (and Republicans) are speculating that forces allied with Gov. Rauner could spend millions of dollars on that one race alone.

Blanketed network TV ads with a solid message can move voters, especially with that kind of money behind them.

Madigan is a notoriously cautious politician. So, whether or not his enemies pull the trigger on a massive campaign assault, he’ll deploy enough foot soldiers to cover his district many times over.

Chicago and Cook County voters are already up in arms about property and sales tax increases, so we can also probably expect Madigan to be at least reluctant to raise taxes before the March 15th primary.

What I’m saying here is that if you think a solution to this impasse has looked next to impossible for the past several months, the situation may have gotten substantially worse since the candidate filing period ended.  

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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