Technically, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s election victory on November 4, 2014, marked the end of his first political campaign. But in some ways that campaign has never stopped.
In what appears to be a fundamentally new strategy in the use of campaign cash in Illinois, the state’s new Republican governor in May doled out $400,000 in a single day from his main campaign committee, giving to all 67 Republicans in both chambers of the legislature.
Part of what made the contributions notable was that the state was in a political off-year, with one election just passed and no lawmaker facing the voters again until at least 2016.
What they faced more imminently was a contentious legislative session in which Rauner — a Springfield newcomer with few established political alliances there — needed Republicans to stick with him as he pushed his ambitious “Turnaround Agenda” of pro-business policy changes against staunch resistance by ruling Democrats.
A month later, Rauner used another campaign committee, one funded by himself and fellow wealthy businessman Sam Zell to launch a television commercial blitz slamming House Speaker Michael Madigan and the Democrats for blocking that agenda.
The commercials started during tense post-session budget negotiations between Rauner and the Democrats, with the content clearly aimed at affecting those talks. The tone and craft of the first commercial — ominous music, crawling headlines, a sinister-looking image of Madigan — wouldn’t have appeared out of place running in the heat of an election campaign. But, again, no election was in sight.
Illinois has a storied and, some would say, infamous history in relation to campaign contributions.
In the strictest sense, that money is supposed to be used to help candidates wage their election campaigns, and nothing more. In reality, of course, individual donors, special interest groups and the political leaders themselves have always used it to affect that thing that goes on between elections, known as governing.
But never quite like this.
“In the past, during the legislative session, the campaign contributions are basically from big interests that have a presence in the legislature,” says Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “You get beer distributor checks all year around, you get Ameren checks all year around, that sort of thing. It’s not like you don’t have money flowing into to the General Assembly in the off-years. And when an issue heats up, you can get a big surge of new money.”
But, he adds: “The idea of a governor making contributions to a whole caucus is something I don’t remember ever happening. It’s really unprecedented in terms of having money controlled by a political interest.”
To others, “political interest” isn’t a strong enough term.
“[Rauner] is a special interest,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told the Chicago Tribune in May, essentially categorizing the governor with the plethora of narrowly focused corporate and issue-oriented PACs that have long used money to push their agendas in Springfield. “It confuses the average person who thinks he’s about changing the whole environment, when he’s engaged in the very same activity.”
The dangers of this development, some say, are the same dangers that reformers have long decried in all unrestrained use of campaign funds — but with the added twist that, this time, those funds are coming not from some corporation or PAC seeking to affect policy, but from the state’s chief executive.
“The influence of big money, whether it comes from the governor or private interests, is always that it distorts public policy,” says Redfield, who tracks campaign spending. “Legislators can be cross-pressured between the interests of their districts and big money — in this case, governor’s money.”
The fact that a significant portion of those funds are literally “the governor’s money” — not just from his campaign fund, but ultimately from his own pocket — adds yet another element.
“This is really uncharted territory,” says Sarah Brune, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “It allows more wealthy individuals to dominate the discussion.”
Rauner’s money, and the money of major donors backing his agenda, is primarily in three funds: Citizens for Rauner, Inc., the committee that got him elected and has since been re-filled largely with money from his personal fortune; Turnaround Illinois, an independent expenditure PAC named for Rauner’s first-term agenda of pro-business policy changes; and Illinoisans for Growth and Opportunity (or IllinoisGO), aimed primarily at helping support centrist Democrats who might vote with Republicans on some issues.
Here’s how the money breaks down:
* By far the biggest fund is Rauner’s namesake committee, which had more than $20 million cash on hand as of March 31, the end of the first quarter campaign filing period — half of it provided from Rauner’s personal fortune.
The $400,000 that was spread among Republican legislators in May came from that fund. Recipients across the GOP House and Senate caucuses — all 20 in the Senate and all 47 in the House — got individual donations of between $4,000 and $10,000. According to Rauner’s office, they all went out on one day: Monday, May 11 — just as Rauner and Democratic leaders were locked in the heat of end-of-session battles over his policy proposals and the state budget.
* Turnaround Illinois, an independent expenditure fund that Rauner set up April 15, had just two donors as June: Rauner, who gave it $250,000, and Zell, the former Tribune Co. chairman, who donated $4 million on April 17.
Its purpose, which was apparent by late June, was to fund a television commercial blitz against Madigan as tense post-session budget negotiations approached the July 1 state government shutdown deadline. Those independent expenditures wouldn’t show up in campaign records until the next quarterly filings, but various media sources around Chicago have put the television buys at between $800,000 and $1 million.
“They’re saying ‘no’ to spending discipline, ‘no’ to job-creating economic reforms, ‘no’ to term limits,” says the narrator, rattling off a few items from Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda. “All they want is higher taxes. Again.”
* IllinoisGO was created April 3, and doesn’t have Rauner’s fingerprints directly on it. The $9 million in the fund as of mid-June was donated by wealthy Rauner supporters, including $1 million from Zell's wife, Helen*. The fund’s statement of organization specifies that it’s affiliated with the Democratic Party, and its stated purpose is “to support candidates that share the goals of our organization.”
While it’s all different money from different funds, being used in different ways, it serves the same central goal: To keep the GOP’s outnumbered caucus unified (along with some conservative Democrats) in backing Rauner’s legislative agenda: passing right-to-work legislation that would weaken the power of labor unions, lowering property taxes, and instituting tort reform, workers’ compensation reform and other business-friendly policies.
During budget negotiations this year, that agenda has been a central issue — to Rauner, at least, who has said he’d be willing to talk about a tax hike if Democrats would institute some of his policy proposals. While it’s undetermined at this writing whether that will happen, Madigan has been on record against it, saying the budget and economic policy are two different topics.
In light of that impasse, it becomes clear why Rauner would need to make sure first and foremost that he’s got all legislative Republicans (and any reachable Democrats) solidly behind him.
“There’s a lot of pressure from all the special interest groups that don’t want to change,” Rauner told reporters in May. “We’re a superminority. To have more influence in the process we need to stay unified.”
Of that money, $10,000 went to Senate Republican Christine Radogno, who shrugged off the issue when talking to reporters in May.
“The governor's a Republican. It makes sense that he supports Republicans. I know I'm going to use that money to support Republicans,” she said, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune. “I don't think there's anything nefarious about it.”
Still, some members have admitted some trepidation about at least the optics of accepting those checks.
“It’s sitting on a table at home right now,” Springfield Rep. Tim Butler, who got a check for $8,000, told the State Journal-Register in late May. “I think we’ve just got to see how things play out. Obviously, there’s been a lot made of the fact that he’s cut these checks, so I’m kind of evaluating it right now.” Butler finally did deposit the check, according to his campaign records, which show it appearing in his committee on June 1.
Rep. Raymond Poe, also a Springfield Republican, received $3,000. He took it a step further, telling the paper: “I don’t intend to probably ever cash it. . . . I didn’t think I needed it right now and probably shouldn’t cash it.”
Some say there isn’t a problem with the goal of staying unified, but with the means: spreading money widely around the Capitol in a way that appears timed to affect immediate policy debates in the legislature.
“We’re not sure where the perception of buying votes falls on Rauner’s shakeup Springfield agenda, but it sure sounds like business as usual in state government,” suggests a May 20 editorial in the Chicago suburban Northwest Herald.
By doling out money to every Republican in the legislature during legislative debate, “Rauner is no better than the special interest groups and Springfield culture he campaigned against,” said the paper. “We expected more from the man who promised to shakeup Springfield.”
Others say it actually goes beyond “business as usual.”
“Obviously, [legislative leaders] raise money” to give at election time to those members most in need of help, notes Redfield. “But to give money to the whole caucus, and to have it so obviously tied to certain policy issues – that’s unprecedented.”
Underlying the issue of whether it’s okay to so bluntly use campaign funds for immediate policy goals is the fact that so much of that money is from Rauner’s personal fortune.
In all, Rauner has donated more than $38 million to his own gubernatorial campaign fund as of June 22, according to state Board of Elections records.
But perhaps more telling is that fully $10.5 million of that has come after the November 4 elections, meaning it could have no imminent electoral purpose.
Jim Nowlan, a former state legislator and former senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, noted that Rauner is in a rare position as “an elected official who has almost unlimited funds to put at his disposal.”
“You have to appreciate that politics is the struggle for power and influence, and you use whatever materials are available to you: money, people, skills, jobs,” Nowlan says.
Rauner is applying money, Nowlan says, because, as a political novice with little history and few loyalists in Springfield, money is what he has. “Money, rather than persuasion, becomes a commodity in this struggle for power and influence.”
“In the past, governors have used their [government job] patronage power to impose some influence on legislators. This is the first situation I know of in which a governor is using big money to try to move his legislative agenda.”
The concern, Nowlan says, is that so much of the money in play is coming not from a widespread base of supporters, but from Rauner himself and a handful of other mega-wealthy donors.
“What worries me is that the super-wealthy are hoping to create a plutocracy … to try to manage democracy with their money,’’ Nowlan says. “It does worry me, in the wake of Citizens United and other [court] decisions, that they seem to be flexing their monetary muscle in ways that can damage democracy.”
Rauner’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on issues surrounding the use of his campaign funds.
But in public comments this spring, as his battle with the legislative leaders heated up and the campaign cash flowed, Rauner has maintained that he’s only providing a counterbalance to the massive money that legislative leaders have funneled to their own caucuses for years.
As has been his strategy since last year’s campaign season, Rauner has sought to present himself — wealth and all — as an ally to regular people, and Springfield’s more seasoned politicians as their enemies. “This is a battle for the future of Illinois, and it pits the political class against the people,” Rauner said in late May.
His Democratic adversaries, meanwhile, are saying that Rauner’s unusual use of his campaign fund is complicating an already-mired legislative process by making some Republican lawmakers less willing to compromise. Those lawmakers, Senate President John Cullerton told The Associated Press in late May, are being “lured away by the siren song of Gov. Rauner’s cash.”
“We find ourselves trying to work with a governor who continues to run campaigns rather than the state that elected him,” said Cullerton.
Beyond those concerns of the moment is a broader one: Is Rauner pioneering a new element of governance that will allow — even require — future governors to use cash in the way past ones used political consensus and patronage jobs?
“You have the potential here for Rauner to be a political boss, but rather than being rooted in a political organization, it’s rooted in money,” warns Redfield. “If the lynchpin of all of this is big money from him and all his contributors, there is no accountability. The antidote to too much big money in the system isn’t more big money.”
- Kevin McDermott is a political reporter and former Illinois Statehouse correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
*An earlier version of this story said the $1 million contribution to IllinoisGO came from Sam Zell. It was donated by his wife, Helen.