Disclosure: The author of this article is a former intern for Candace Chow, a former Democratic challenger to Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz.
It’s no secret in today’s political climate that big elections require big money. The maliciousness of monied interests in campaign spending has seeped into the war chests and PAC donations of even the most ardent supporters of campaign finance reform. Former Democrat and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, co-sponsor with John McCain of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act that famously rolled back private campaign spending from wealthy individuals, won three consecutive Senate seats via a grassroots campaign that took most of its money from small Wisconsin donors.
Although Feingold staked his senatorial career on combating the ills of big money, he lost his seat in 2010 to Republican Ron Johnson, who spent $9 million of his own funds to take the seat. Undaunted, Feingold ran once more in 2016 but his efforts included raising millions of dollars from PACs, rather than maintaining his grassroots campaign of old.
"It makes no sense now," Feingold told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2015 after being pressed on why he began accepting large private donations. "Every single election is different based on the reality of the campaign finance law at the time.”
Feingold’s flip on campaign finance reform is just one of the many startling developments in American political strategy since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which effectively repealed the limits McCain-Feingold placed. Money, and especially large amounts of money from private donors, has begun to dominate elections across the nation.
The burgeoning of big donors at the state level has contributed to one of the more searing trends in American democracy: the idea that the rulers of the marketplace will now also rule the political theater.
This year, the spotlight on the ills of campaign financing resides squarely in the Illinois gubernatorial election. Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner and his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker are projected to spend $300 million each, smashing the previous record of $280 million set in the 2010 California gubernatorial race between Democrat Jerry Brown and the Republican former CEO of Ebay, Meg Whitman.
At the time of publishing, Pritzker and Rauner have raised a combined total of $180.1 million dollars, with $134.3 million from their own pockets. The dominance of millionaire politicians in Illinois – which also includes State House Speaker Mike Madigan and Democratic primary challenger Chris Kennedy – has created a political situation where big donors have become a prerequisite for basic political survival.
Such an atmosphere is a detriment to politicians that have the experience, prerequisites, and vision to serve their jurisdictions but lack funding. The domination of the political class by the monied interests begs the question of whether or not Illinois will have their interests properly represented by governments, or if the government will serve the rich, rather than the average citizen.
The sheer scale of money on the table has not gone unnoticed by other candidates, or by Illinois voters; many viable candidates have been essentially locked out of running for office due to a small campaign war chest. Alderman Ameya Pawar was the first serious candidate to drop his bid in the Democratic primary, citing a lack of funds in comparison to Pritzker and Kennedy. Pawar raised $828,000 dollars, a considerable sum of money but a far cry from what is needed in this political climate to compete.
In a statement on Pritzker’s campaign spending, State Senator and former gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss decried Pritzker for “trying to buy elections,” a practice which he claims “threatens our democracy at its very core.”
In down-ballot elections, the influence of big money is less visible, but has a greater impact. Smaller elections have historically lacked the visibility, importance and consequently the big money found in national races. Wealth has not been a prerequisite for these elections, specifically because wealth was not necessary to win them. As such, in small races where constituents typically have less contact with candidates due to money restrictions, a deluge of outside spending can lead to substantially more exposure.
In the race for the 17th district in the Illinois House of Representatives, Democratic nominee Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz had expenditures totaling $533,000 between January to March 2018.
As of March 17th, the campaign raised $700,000 in total but only 3% of that came from District 17 voters. Roughly $385,000 has been reported to come from either Mike Madigan’s PAC or PACs supporting other State Representative Democrats. Interestingly enough, these funds were used in a Democratic primary, not even a general election, in a deep-blue district that will almost certainly go blue once more in November. The Gong-Gershowitz campaign reportedly used these funds to take aim at other candidates via mailing and television ads.
This increase in spending for even smaller elections has pernicious ramifications for career politicians and others that lack the financial prowess of the Pritzker’s of the political arena.
In the case of Pawar, viable candidates with strong backgrounds are forced to concede to monied interests. In response to Citizens United and the preponderance of money in elections, politicians have challenged the status quo to enact some change; Bernie Sanders’ platform in the 2016 Democratic primary was based, at least in part, on the idea that Hillary Clinton was too beholden to elite interests to pass legislation for everyday citizens.
In Illinois, the dynamics concerning political power and money are on full display for the rest of the nation. As major political outlets report on the governor’s election, both candidates continue to rack up millions of dollars from PACs and their own bank accounts. Politicians have taken note – during the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton cited repealing Citizens United as one of her main campaign finance reform goals.
Illinois is poised to become a test run for the Citizens United experiment. It is obvious already that big money has played a dramatic role in the results of the primaries, but it remains to be seen how either Rauner or Pritzker will govern with monied interests in mind. Nevertheless, policymakers and voters must work to enact campaign finance reform to prevent big money from interfering with Illinois elections. Politics in Illinois should not come with a price tag attached, for the good of both voters and politicians.