For the first time in recent history, Illinois Republicans are vastly outspending Democrats in fall legislative races with the help of a wealthy governor determined to curtail a traditionally blue political landscape that has thwarted his agenda for two years.
The more than $13 million the GOP's main campaign committee has disbursed to House and Senate candidates so far — nearly all of it coming from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner — dwarfs what either party has been able to spend sometimes in entire election cycles. And the Illinois Republican Party Committee still has $3 million from Rauner in the bank.
"This is a new ballgame and we're taking it very seriously," said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the Democrats' House leader.
Infusions of cash from the former venture capitalist demonstrates how much — and how easily — he's willing to invest in pursuit of his goal to give his party greater influence in the state Legislature.
The November results could determine the fate of Rauner's proposals to weaken unions, pass business-friendly laws, impose term limits, and change the way legislative districts are drawn for years to come. They also will decide who has control of crafting a full state budget, which Illinois hasn't had for over a year because Rauner wants Democrats to give him what he wants in exchange for raising taxes to help with a deficit that exceeds $5 billion.
Rauner was elected in 2014 as a political newcomer promising to shake up the Democrats' regime, but they've had supermajorities to block all his major proposals.
His entry into politics and the spending power he brought with him has allowed Republicans to compete in more races — and a lot earlier than past years when Democrats' financial resources were superior.
Democrats have controlled both chambers of the Legislature since 2003 and have the nation's longest-tenured state House speaker, Michael Madigan, who has held that post for all but two years since 1983. When Rauner was elected, he became the first Republican in 12 years in Illinois, a Democratic stronghold that hasn't backed a Republican for president since 1988.
Before Rauner, the Illinois Republican Party Committee spent $3.4 million on races in 2012. The Democratic Party of Illinois, meanwhile, spent $6.7 million. Both parties distribute money to candidates through several other committees so those totals don't tell the entire story, but they're indicative of each party's past spending prowess, according to campaign disclosures The Associated Press analyzed dating back to 2006 from the Illinois State Board of Elections.
"There's never been a time in recent history where House Republicans have outspent House Democrats. It's been a considerable disadvantage," said Rep. Jim Durkin, the GOP's House leader.
Breaking the Democrats' supermajorities in either chamber won't be easy because the party enjoys advantages of 71-47 in the House and 39-20 in the Senate. But Durkin said Rauner's money "for the first time in many years gives us a fighting chance."
Rauner has repeatedly declined to comment on the legislative races or his involvement in them.
On the Democrats' side, their party committees have been less active than the Republicans' this year. The Democratic Party of Illinois and the Democratic Majority — two of the party's biggest committees — have contributed a combined $1.6 million to candidates so far. But the Democrats' candidates have individually amassed robust campaign funds. Democratic Rep. John Bradley, for instance, has $647,160 at his disposal for his closely watched race against Dave Severin in southern Illinois.
That's what makes Rauner's money so significant in a state where Democrats tend to be more successful fundraisers. The majority of Severin's $300,000 in campaign cash has come from the House Republican Organization committee, which is receiving large deposits from the Illinois Republican Party to funnel to candidates.
Republican Rep. Michael McAuliffe, who Democrats are targeting in the Chicago suburbs, has also benefited from Rauner's funding. The House Republican Organization has contributed nearly $1 million to his campaign. Television ads supporting McAuliffe have been airing since August, earlier than when either party usually hits the air waves. McAuliffe's ads have even played outside his district.
In the past, Republicans would've been reluctant to spend money in August when voters are less engaged. They just couldn't afford it. In 2012, for example, the Republicans' two major party committees spent just over $2 million combined from July 1 through Sept. 30.
"Some of this spending has nothing to do with the election. It has to do with Rauner flexing his muscle," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. That display of financial force can influence who Democrats choose as their gubernatorial candidate next time because they'll want someone who can self-fund or raise massive amounts of cash, Yepsen said.
"Democrats, if they survive, they're going to know they've been in a fight," he said.