With little more than 10 months to go before the 2015 mayoral election, Rahm Emanuel remains a prohibitive favorite for reelection. Despite a spate of bad press, seemingly abysmal poll numbers and a number of potential challengers being touted, much of the smart money in this town still says knocking off Rahm with only months left to build a coalition, develop an effective message and raise the necessary campaign funds is a tall order for even the savviest of challengers.
Without a doubt, Rahm’s potential advantage is due in no small part to a $7 million and growing campaign war chest the mayor has amassed. By any measure, $7 million is already an almost obscene amount of money for a municipal mayoral campaign, and is more than enough to scare off all but the most committed or foolhardy of challengers.
But within this reality lies another: it’s not going to take $7 million or $10 million or more for Rahm to fend off a challenger, no matter how much of a committed opponent he may end up facing.
So—what happens to the rest of the money in Rahm’s war chest for 2015? For the sake of argument, lets say Chicago for Rahm Emanuel, the mayor’s primary campaign committee, ends up with $9 million to spend in 2015. And, for the sake of simplicity, let’s divide that amount up into three categories: $3 million for the mayoral campaign against a much less well-funded challenger, $3 million held in reserve for a rainy day, and $3 million for “other political activities”.
What, exactly, might those other political activities entail? From the perspective of a powerful mayor with a reasonable lock on re-election (and, yes, of course nothing’s guaranteed in Chicago politics), $3 million to play with presents the mayor with a lot of attractive political opportunities to shape the landscape for Chicago politics as he sees fit, as well as help consolidate his own power should he decide to stick around for another few terms.
And if Rahm is looking to reshape the political landscape of the city for his own benefit, few opportunities are as target rich as the Chicago City Council. While Emanuel already has a death grip on the Council, there are still enough aldermen who stand either in outright opposition to his administration or are not sufficiently loyal to anything the mayor may want to do to be completely trusted when the chips are down.
As well, every municipal election cycle throws up a handful of aldermen who are politically vulnerable within their own wards, for whatever reason, who could present tempting targets for a mayor looking to spend a lot of excess campaign cash.
For a political challenger, backing from the mayor or the mayor’s political allies can change the game in critical ways. From an electoral standpoint at the aldermanic and ward level, one reality hold true: it is very hard to unseat an incumbent alderman.
For one, most aldermanic challengers are political neophytes, with little training and often unclear on how to run an effective political campaign. As well, many run for all of the wrong reasons, like a personal vendetta against the incumbent or an inflated sense of importance to the community, that simply fails to garner them enough votes to win.
As well, many voters expect their current alderman believes his or her way around City Hall, and are unwilling to take a chance on someone new to the game.
Most important, however, fundraising for a political unknown, especially in wards with even a reasonably established alderman, means facing a lot of closed doors and even more closed checkbooks. It takes somewhere between $125,000 to $250,000 to mount a reasonable aldermanic campaign, with paid staffers, an office and enough money for 10 to 12 or more campaign mailings, which is a dollar amount many challengers never get to.
But for a candidate willing to get into a race and align his or herself with the current mayor, an extra $125,000 or $150,000 out of the gate from a friendly administration can make the difference between instant credibility and permanent obscurity. And, it can go a long way to convince a sitting alderman that he or she can no longer expect to cruise to reelection with a fight.
And with $3 million or $2 million or even $1 million, that's a lot of $50,000 or $100,000 checks that can be thrown around.
In the next installment of this story, we’ll examine some of the political forces that may prompt an alderman to appear vulnerable to a potential threat from Rahm’s millions.
But if I was a sitting alderman who stood in outright opposition to the current mayor, wasn’t exactly sure where I stood with the 5th Floor of City Hall or wasn’t sure I had enough friends in Chicago political circles with big checkbooks who would come to my aid in a time of trouble, I’d be a little bit worried these days.