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Thursday, July 28, 2016 12:15 am

The tables have turned

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
During the second quarter of 2012, the Illinois House Republican Organization’s largest reported campaign expenditure was a $12,612 payment to the Internal Revenue Service. Indeed, six of HRO’s ten largest expenditures that quarter were for IRS payments, most likely quarterly withholding.

But four years later, the HRO’s spending focus is solidly on the campaign. The House Republicans’ top reported expenditure this past quarter was $173,000 for polling. And five of its top ten expenditures were listed as advertising buys.

All told, the House Republican Organization spent nearly $1.8 million during the second quarter of this year, which ended June 30, on a campaign that’s already in full swing – on one side, at least.

Almost all of the money raised by HRO came from the Illinois Republican Party, and that money mostly came from Gov. Bruce Rauner.

During the second quarter of 2012, the Illinois Republican Party reported spending just $4,130.63 on all expenses. This past quarter, however, the state GOP spent well over $2.7 million, with the bulk of that ($2 million) going to the House Republican Organization. The state party received an unprecedented $5 million check from Gov. Rauner’s campaign earlier in the quarter.

By contrast, the Democratic Party of Illinois reported spending just ninety-nine cents on state campaign activities during the recently concluded second quarter (the expenditure was not itemized). And while Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan reported spending $283K out of his personal campaign fund, his largest reported expenditure by far this past quarter was for IRS payments.

The tables have most definitely turned.

The House Republicans have flooded the airwaves of southern Illinois with massive advertising buys targeting three Democrats: Reps. John Bradley and Brandon Phelps and Sen. Gary Forby. It’s also running cable and network TV ads against several other Democrats. Only recently have some Democrats responded with their own ads.

A new TV ad against Sen. Forby, officially paid for by the House Republican Organization even though Forby is a Senator, blasts the incumbent Democrat for being in Speaker Madigan’s pocket. It’s way over the top because Forby isn’t really a “Madigan Democrat,” but that’s beside the point. Madigan is hugely unpopular so that’s just the way it goes.

“For decades,” the ad begins, “Mike Madigan has had an iron grip on Springfield and our own state Senator Gary Forby. Forby has helped Madigan drive Illinois into the ditch, raising our taxes while shortchanging our schools. Fourteen times, Forby’s backed Madigan’s phony budgets. $13 billion in deficit spending, to double the income tax and expand the sales tax. Forby rubber-stamped Madigan’s bailout for Chicago Public Schools. Gary Forby – Mike Madigan’s senator, not ours.”

Forby has withstood millions of dollars in attacks since he first ran for the Illinois House in 2000, defeating a Republican opponent at the time by less than three points. His victory margins have steadily grown over the years but this is the first time that the 71-year-old Benton incumbent has faced this sort of massive paid opposition this early.

And it’s not just TV. A recent direct mailer sent by the Illinois Republican Party has a photoshopped image of Madigan sitting at a restaurant table while Rep. Mike Smiddy (D-Hillside) stands behind him dressed as a bow-tied waiter in a fancy restaurant with a cloth napkin draped over one arm. “Doubletalking Mike Smiddy Serving Mike Madigan Since 2013,” the front page blares. Smiddy was first elected without Madigan’s help and is not considered a “minion.” But, again, Madigan is intensely disliked. And you go with what works in campaigns.

“State Rep. Mike Smiddy Says He’s For Us ... But Goes To Springfield And Does Madigan’s Bidding,” is the headline on the flip side. “Mike Smiddy serving Mike Madigan is costing our families,” the mailer declares. “Watch what Smiddy does in Springfield, not what he says in the Quad Cities.”

Will this focus on Madigan and Madigan alone work? It hasn’t in the past, but the governor’s people obviously believe it will or they wouldn’t be putting so many resources into this theme. They’ve picked a message and they’re repeating it endlessly everywhere. In past years, the anti-Madigan messaging didn’t have nearly the money or the intensity behind it, and Madigan’s approval poll numbers have fallen from horrible to horrific in the meantime.

The Democrats will use a very unpopular Rauner against Republicans, and they are expecting to benefit from their usual turnout bump during a presidential year. They also have a very impressive organization.

We’ll all find out in November who’s right.

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

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