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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010 02:24 pm

Record-breaking year for campaign spending

Expensive election surpasses old highs, worries advocates

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This election cycle is turning out to be the most expensive in Illinois’ history, and campaign finance reform advocates are troubled by what that means.

The Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform says the race for governor will likely end up costing $33 million in the general election alone, which will likely shatter the previous record of $23.7 million set in 2006.

The exact total won’t be known until candidates file disclosure reports in January, but Democrat incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington are on track to spend a combined $30 million in the general election. That doesn’t include about $3 million in combined spending by the other three candidates for governor. Brady’s spending alone may reach $17 million, which would exceed ousted governor Rod Blagojevich’s 2006 record of $16.7 million.

Adding in spending from the Feb. 2 primary election may push the total cost of the entire governor race past $63 million, ICPR says, shattering the old record of $60.5 million set in 2006.

“That’s about twice what Illinois government will spend this year in state tax dollars to assist job creation through the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity,” ICPR notes.

At least 15 legislative races spent more than $1 million each this election cycle, ICPR says, adding that the 2008 election cycle saw only six legislative races break the $1 million mark.

The 49th Senate district, which borders Sangamon County to the south, was the most expensive legislative race of all, with Democrat incumbent Deanna Demuzio and Republican challenger Sam McCann together spending $2.67 million against one another. The previous record of $2.3 million was set in 2004.

The race for the 98th Representative district, which covers parts of Christian, Macoupin and Montgomery counties south of Sangamon County, was the third most expensive legislative battle, with Republican Wayne Rosenthal and Democrat Charles Landers spending a combined $1.66 million against one another.

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride faced a retention election this year, which cost an estimated $3.2 million dollars. By contrast, the old record for a judicial retention race was in the low six-figure range, ICPR says. Kilbride raised $2.6 million, while his opponents, the Illinois Civil Justice League, raised about $700,000. ICJL sought to remove Kilbride from office for his support of limits on medical malpractice and personal injury lawsuits.

Cynthia Canary, director of ICPR, says one of the main problems with the increase in legislative campaign spending is that much of the money is being funneled through the four legislative leaders, which reduces the independence of individual legislators.

“Candidates are really turning to leadership and not to constituents,” Canary says. “It’s about a message that is produced centrally, consulting that is produced centrally – it’s sort of a packaged-out campaign. At the end of the day, it’s about a candidate who knows, ‘Should I face another competitive race, I’m going to have to go back to that leader.’ It talks to the notion of incredible control that our four caucus leaders in both parties have. Ultimately, that is a dangerous thing in a democracy.”

In the governor race, multimillion-dollar contributions from political parties makes it difficult to track money from its original source to a candidate. For example, the $6.5 million in contributions from the Republican Governors Association of Illinois to Brady’s campaign makes up about 40 percent of Brady’s funding, Canary notes.

“The Republican Governors Association is about 27 organizations, which means it is very, very difficult for us to figure out who is contributing all of these funds to this organization,” she says. “We lose the trail of disclosure with RGA almost immediately….Who the actual individuals, corporate entities, not-for-profit entities or associations that are behind this effort, no voter knows.

“In our mind, if you accept the notion that elections should really be marketplaces of ideas,” Canary says, “I think it is very dangerous to take this final leap that says we should have a marketplace of anonymous ideas, and that is what we see with so many of the ads we’ve had this election cycle. We can hear the most damning messages about candidates and policies, but we don’t have the ability to find out who these messages are coming from.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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