SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner’s money is at work on the campaign trail even if he’s not as Illinois moves closer to the general election.
Since the start of 2016, the self-made millionaire has contributed more than $6.7 million to candidates, political action committees, and the Republican Party, fueling involvement in races across the state. In August, though, he told reporters he hasn’t been focused on state races.
"I'm not really very involved. My focus really is on the government and good policy and administration. You know, we're trying to make the government as efficient and effective as we can,” Rauner said. He went on to list efforts to recruit top talent to run agencies, transform health and human services and the corrections and criminal justice system, and recruit businesses to the state. “That's really where I'm spending my time. I'm really not too involved in races."
Also in August, his candidate committee, Citizens for Rauner, transferred $5 million to the Illinois Republican Party. Rauner is the biggest donor to his candidate committee, having donated upward of $40 million in total. Around the same time, the Republican committee transferred $2.5 million to the House Republican Organization, which distributed $523,875 among 15 House candidates. The party also transferred $500,000 to the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee, which put $117,851 toward two Senate candidates.
Rauner also is a top donor to two of the most highly funded state-level Super PACs, Liberty Principles PAC and Turnaround Illinois, according to campaign finance data. Super PACs are independent expenditure committees that can raise unlimited funds from contributors, from corporations to unions to individuals, and spend it on advocating a political candidate or a position on an issue. Liberty Principles supports and opposes candidates in state and local races.
With a seemingly endless capacity to contribute to campaigns, Rauner is a key player in Illinois’ campaign finance landscape. Super PAC activity reached unprecedented levels around the primary this year and it’s expected to pick up again the same on both sides in the coming months. But campaign funding is closely watched by experts and political reform advocates, some of whom say powerful donors drown out smaller groups and individual voters.
Head of the party
A governor’s support can be a boon for a candidate in a district where he’s popular. His star power attracts media attention and donors and galvanizes supporters, David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, told the Record.
“However, and this is important, if a governor is unpopular in a particular district, it might not be good for the local candidate to be seen with the chief executive,” Yepsen said. “Any governor is bound to have places where they are popular and other places where they aren’t.”
While Rauner’s importance is nothing new, his capacity to fund Republican political interests is unprecedented in Illinois, and, generally, its presence is all positive. Because just like any other independent funder — or wealthy candidates in other states — it bolsters the party’s effort.
“It will have an effect because it enables GOP candidates to purchase media time and wage sophisticated voter turnout efforts,” Yepsen said. “There’s a reason why the candidates with the most money often win races.”
Rauner's office did not return calls for comment on this article.
His money also puts him exactly where he wants to be, Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, told the Record.
“He’s said since day one that he really wants to be the leader of the party and he is showing that by making large financial contributions that trickle down into house and senate races on the Republican side,” she said.
Super PACs on the rise
Illinois Super PACs spent considerably more on elections during the Illinois primary this year than in years past, including other presidential election years, Brune said. In some districts, voters pulled five or six direct mailers out of their mailbox on any given day.
“The presence of state level Super PACs has grown in Illinois, especially over the last year,” Brune said.
Candidates may be the beneficiary of massive campaign spending, but many PACs are founded on ideas rather than individuals. Turnaround Illinois was established to support candidates who support Rauner’s agenda and Liberty Principles advocates for conservative political values. The third-most funded Super PAC, Personal PAC Independent Committee, is committed to electing pro-choice candidates to state and local office. Its top donor is Fred Eychaner, a wealthy Chicago entrepreneur and philanthropist.
Money’s influence in campaigns is unquestioned. Super PACs have been criticized because, unlike political action committees (regular PACs), there aren’t limits on contributions. Super PACs are restricted in one way — they’re not allowed to coordinate with a specific candidate. But coordination is not well defined, Brune said.
The presence of so much money from single sources, such as Super PACs is felt in local races.
“It can really drown out the voice of local votes. That’s something that troubles us,” Brune said. “I think it can be really frustrating for grassroots candidates and independent candidates, as well as voters who want to get involved. In order to be a successful candidate, you have to have some monetary backing. It’s just a fact. It can be really frustrating when they see millions pouring in from Super PACs or parties because that definitely gives parties a leg up.”
Most groups, candidates, and voters don’t have the money to keep pace in TV time and other campaign ads. Voters who feel strongly about a certain issue but don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to pour into broadcasting their viewpoint will have to wait to be heard in the voting booth.
“They’re just trying to get involved in their local politics,” Brune said.
Recent campaign finance reform brought more transparency to Super PAC spending by requiring committees to report expenditures within five days.
“It gives everyone a better sense of who’s spending and what they’re spending it on,” Brune said.
With that much money out there, though, how it’s spent becomes important. If opposing parties come close to each other in spending, it can cancel each other out as voters become inundated with messages, Yepsen said.
“An unprecedented amount of money is being spent by both parties in key legislative races,” Yepsen said. “There is so much money on TV in some districts, I think a law of diminishing returns sets in — the ads become a blur and don’t have much effect. People tune a lot of it out. It’s often more important what we don’t see: the sophisticated targeting of undecided or unregistered voters, for example, than can often tip a close race.”