A couple of legislative primary races are serving as stand-ins for the political struggle between the governor and Democratic leaders.
State legislative primary races do not typically get people fired up. For instance, in 2014 primary voter turnout was only about 15 percent in Cook County and under 20 percent in the rest of the state.
But this year, the conflict between Democratic legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is playing out in a couple of primary races for the General Assembly. These proxy wars have led to big spending and strange political bedfellows and have projected these contests onto the statewide political stage.
Illinois' primary is scheduled for March 15, but early voting is already underway.
“There are a number of things that are different about this primary season and one of them is certainly the context that we have this epic struggle between (Democrats in) the legislature and the governor,” says Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. “You have two high profile races which bear directly on the question of gubernatorial and legislative influence over the process.”
Of the two legislative contests serving as stand-ins for the political brawl between House Speaker Michael Madigan and Rauner, the Democratic primary in Illinois’ 5th House District is the main event.
Chicago Democratic Rep. Ken Dunkin, who is recently estranged from his caucus, faces union-backed challenger Juliana Stratton. The rift between Dunkin and legislative Democrats began when Dunkin was in New York on a session day and missed several key votes in the House. One bill would have blocked the governor’s move to severely limit eligibility for child care subsidies to low-income families. Another vote failed to override the governor’s veto of a union-friendly bill that would have sent negotiations over state workers’ contracts to an arbitrator. Dunkin went on to vote against the bill when it was called again some months later.
Dunkin has always been outspoken and somewhat of a nonconformist in his party. He missed the vote to impeach then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He once flipped the bird to his colleagues in the House after a piece of legislation he sponsored went down in flames with more than 100 members of the 118-strong body voting “no.” House members whose legislation fails so spectacularly get a place in the chamber’s “Century Club” and their name etched on a gag trophy. Dunkin’s moniker is on the plaque twice. (Actually, three of his bills failed with more than 100 House members opposed, but two of them were in the same year.)
Stratton is director for the Center for Public Safety and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago and was a top aid to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
There has been enough outside spending by political action committees (PACs) to bust the contribution caps in the race. That means both candidates can take in big money donations, and they have.
In February, Stratton received more than $100,000 each from the PACs of the American Federation of State Local and Municipal Employees Council 31 and SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana.
Also in February, The Illinois Opportunity Project (IOP), a nonprofit cofounded by Republican political operative and radio talk show host Dan Proft, gave Dunkin’s campaign $500,000. Proft typically funds candidates running to the ideological right of Republican incumbents. IOP’s website says the group supports “economic liberty” and is “post-partisan.”
A post on the project’s website says the organization “decided that a substantial financial commitment is warranted to support State Rep. Ken Dunkin against the onslaught he is facing from House Speaker Mike Madigan and his public sector union allies in the March primary election.” *Since this article was originally published, IOP has given Dunkin another $300,000, and President Barack Obama has appeared in radio and television ads supporting Stratton.
Redfield, who used to track campaign donations for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform’s Sunshine Project, says of the donation: “It may be the biggest check ever written in Illinois politics” that didn't come from a PAC or a rich donor.
IOP’s post goes on to say, “We hope Rep. Dunkin’s example of acting in furtherance of his constituents rather than toeing the party line established by Speaker Madigan will be followed by more of his colleagues in the House.”
And, of course, this is what Rauner is hoping, too. “It’s not about Ken Dunkin. It’s about the governor fighting the Democratic Party — and vice versa — to show who is in control here,” says Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
Since Stratton entered the race, Dunkin has gone all in to the governor’s camp and escalated his anti-Madigan rhetoric. His opponents are using his newfound alliance with Rauner against him. “I’m seeing signs that say Ken Dunkin and Bruce Rauner, and they’re linking those names together. And those are not pro-Dunkin signs,” says Mooney, who lives in Dunkin’s Chicago district.
Madigan is not actively campaigning against Dunkin, but Redfield notes that he is also not signaling to unions and other allies that they should leave Dunkin alone. “His benign neglect, in terms of support for Dunkin, probably speaks volumes in terms of where he actually stands,” Redfield says.
Another race that is being viewed as a stand in for the stand off between Rauner and Madigan is taking place in the 50th state Senate district. That race pits incumbent Republican Sen. Sam McCann against challenger Bryce Benton.
In 2010, McCann defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Deanna Demuzio in a race that broke campaign-spending records at the time. McCann had the backing of Tea Party organizations, but soon found himself advocating against shutting down a government-run institution in the form of the Jacksonville Developmental Center. McCann was a vocal opponent to former Gov. Pat Quinn’s push to close the center — a fight the senator ultimately lost.
Benton is a state trooper and serves on the board of the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield. Rauner has endorsed him in the race. “He serves others not himself. He has the utmost integrity and can’t be controlled by the special interests,” Rauner said of Benton in an endorsement video. He added, “We have to send a message to the special interests that the days of control in Illinois are over.”
Special interests are in the eye of the beholder, and in Rauner’s view public employee unions are among them. However, for McCann, many members of such unions are also constituents. He has union backing, including financial support and the endorsements of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO and the Fraternal Order of Police Troopers Lodge 41, which counts Benton among its members.
According to McCann, his west-central Illinois district, which includes parts of Springfield, contains more state workers than any other in Illinois. He made that claim when explaining his vote in favor of that same arbitration bill Dunkin voted against. He was the only Republican to vote for what Rauner has described as the worst piece of legislation ever considered by the General Assembly. “At the end of the day, I don’t work for the governor,” McCann told the State Journal-Register (SJ-R) when asked about the vote.
“The governor basically has to come down on him like a ton of bricks to send message to other people in the General Assembly who are Republican who might be interested in doing things that the governor does not want done, like supporting public employee unions,” Mooney says. “Because he was the only one, he stuck out like a nail on a board, and so he’s going to get the hammer down on him.”
Redfield agrees. “It’s about that vote, and it’s about Sam McCann, but it’s also about the rest of the Republicans in the legislature. The not-so-subtle message is: you mess with the bull; you get the horns.”
He says it is very unusual for a sitting governor to endorse the opponent of an incumbent legislator from his own party. “You’d have to go back to the original boss, Richard J. Daley. He would suggest to incumbent legislators, alderman, county officials … that it was time for them to retire and for new blood. And if those Democrats resisted his suggestions, then he would routinely retire them through the primary process,” he says. “That’s really the activity of a political boss, if you will. You’ve got the executive branch controlling things within what is essentially the legislative branch.”
McCann has been called out by the SJ-R for a few unforced errors during the campaign, including continuing to claim a homestead tax exemption on a house that is no longer his primary residence and some questionable mileage reimbursements from his campaign fund.
These stories have been fodder for attacks ads funded by the Liberty Principles Pac, which is chaired by Proft. That PAC got $1.8 million from Turnaround Illinois, a PAC created to support the governor’s business-friendly, anti-union Turnaround agenda. Liberty Principles has spent a reported $1.3 million in the Senate 50th Republican primary race. “It looks like essentially the governor is outsourcing the campaign through this independent expenditure group run by Dan Proft,” Redfield says.
Both the Dunkin v. Stratton and the McCann v. Benton matchups will be closely watched by press and pundits, but they will also be monitored by another audience that is arguable the target of messaging in both — lawmakers.
“These results are going to be interpreted as having significance in terms of the … Democratic leadership — (House) Speaker (Michael) Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton — and their battle with Gov. Bruce Rauner,” Redfield says. If Dunkin wins, it sends a message to other Democrats who might consider supporting some of the governor’s agenda. The governor has their backs, and he can help them hold onto their seats. If McCann wins, Republicans feeling the pressure of a lack of funding for higher education and some social services might feel emboldened to buck the party line.
Or perhaps Dunkin will lose and so will McCann — or they both will win — and nobody will know what to think. “Sam McCann, I think, is in a pretty tenuous position and it will be very interesting to see whether he wins,” Mooney says. But, he adds, “The governor’s going to have his work cut out for him trying to keep Dunkin in office.”
Nothing is assured until the votes are counted. But what is certain is that more than eight months into the budget stalemate, everyone paying attention is looking for what might be the event that leads members on one side or the other blink.
Beyond the two contests that clearly embody the fight between Rauner and legislative Democrats, there are other state legislative primary races worth watching.
Conflict between Gov. Rauner and former Gov. Jim Edgar is playing out in Illinois House District 102. Rep. Adam Brown currently holds the seat, but he is not running for re-election. Rauner is supporting former Republican Rep. Brad Halbrook in the eastern Illinois district. Brown is backing Edgar County Republican Party Chairman Randy Peterson to fill the seat he is vacating.
Edgar has endorsed Jim Acklin, a former school superintendent. Edgar and Rauner have butted heads over the budget impasse. While Edgar says he supports Rauner’s agenda, he has publicly called on the governor to set it aside for now to get a budget passed. Proft’s Liberty Principles PAC is running attack ads against Acklin.
In Chicago, community organizer Jhatayn "Jay" Travis is challenging Democratic Rep. Christian Mitchell to a primary rematch in the 26th House District. Mitchell beat Travis, who is aligned with the Chicago Teachers Union, in a close primary race in 2014.
A few relatively new Republican House members are facing primary challengers. Leland Grove Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez and Raymond Rep. Avery Bourne were both appointed last year to replace lawmakers departing to serve in Rauner’s cabinet. Bourne has worked in the offices of U.S. Rep. John Shimkus and U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis and was a law student at the time of her appointment in the 95th House District. Jimenez was serving as chief of staff to first lady Diana Rauner when she was appointed in the 99th House District.
Christopher Hicks, who works in promotion for a beer distributor, and Litchfield school board member and former teacher Dennis Scobbie are running in the Republican primary for the 95th district. Springfield Attorney Kent Gray is challenging Jimenez.
Finally, Madigan is facing a few opponents in his primary race in the 22nd House District, but the only one giving him a serious challenge is Jason Gonzales. Mooney notes that it’s not uncommon for Madigan to face challenges. Despite his long winning record, there are always those who figure it’s worth a shot. “Elections — it’s like in sports, they play the game because you don’t know who’s going to win. And elections you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Outside spending — much of it from wealthy Democrat Blair Hull in support of Gonzales — has lifted the contribution caps in the race. In the long run, that move may benefit Madigan and his Democratic caucus. He can raise money through unlimited donations between now and the primary, transfer it from his campaign account to the party committee and then dole it out to Democratic legislative candidates with contested races in the general election. No other legislative leader will have this fundraising opportunity in the primary.