Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Illinois Governor Spends Big On Downballot Republican Races


The Republican governor of Illinois is changing how down-ballot races are run in the state, and he's using his own cash to do it. Governor Bruce Rauner's campaign fund has spent more than $33 million so far on little-known races for Illinois state House and Senate. Most of that money comes from Rauner himself. From WBEZ in Chicago, Tony Arnold explains why these races are worth so much to the governor.

TONY ARNOLD, BYLINE: Governor Rauner won election two years ago saying he's the guy to fix Illinois' bad finances, low bond ratings, underfunded pensions and decreasing population. He also won the governor's mansion with the help of $27 million of his own money. This year, Rauner's putting in even more. He's using the fortune he made as a venture capitalist to try and eat into the Democratic supermajorities in the Illinois state House and Senate.

BRUCE RAUNER: It's very important that Illinois become a two-party state. Democracy doesn't work on a one-party basis. One of the reasons we got into such big financial problems is we were a one-party state for quite a while. And we've always had unbalanced budgets.

ARNOLD: Rauner has clashed with Democratic leaders. Things got so bad there was no state budget approved for a year. Universities and social service agencies weren't paid for months. And if Rauner can flip a few seats to Republican, Democrats would lose their veto-proof majorities.

RAUNER: Right now, we don't have competition. We don't have competing ideas. We have a system that's rigged to protect incumbents.

ARNOLD: One of those Republicans who's benefited from Rauner's generosity is Seth Lewis. Lewis is running for the state Senate in Chicago's western suburbs, and he's raised $850,000 in the last two weeks alone.

SETH LEWIS: Every dollar that we get we try and spend as wisely as possible.

ARNOLD: Much of Lewis' money has been funneled to his campaign from the Illinois Republican Party, which Rauner's campaign seeded with $29 million in donations this year. Democrats funnel money to candidates in a similar way. Lewis is spending all this money on expensive TV ads showing him playing baseball with his kids and sending mailers to voters.

LEWIS: Has it had an impact - absolutely. But in my particular case, I think it's just been able to keep us even with our opponent.

ARNOLD: Just so that doesn't go by you, Lewis is saying all that money from Rauner is helping Republicans stay even with the Democrats. Lewis is challenging Democratic incumbent state Senator Tom Cullerton. And over the last three months, Cullerton raised about a million dollars from labor unions and attorneys, traditional Democratic funders along with Democratic leaders. Cullerton says it's the Democrats who are trying to keep up with Republicans. Cullerton won the seat four years ago with a fraction of the cash he spent this year.

TOM CULLERTON: With the amount of money the governor has put in, I don't know if anybody could keep up with the kind of money that he's got and the kind of money he's moving around the state.

DENISE ROTH BARBER: It's definitely a new record.

ARNOLD: Denise Roth Barber is the managing director of the National Institute on Money in Politics. She says Illinois is not unique. Florida, for example, saw its governor, Rick Scott, give a lot of money in the past to campaigns other than his own. But Roth Barber says that still does not come close to what Rauner is spending this year. And once this election's over, some Illinois House and Senate seats might flip, but Democrats will still likely keep their majorities. Meaning for all the money spent, the war between Rauner and Illinois Democrats is likely to continue. For NPR News, I'm Tony Arnold in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tony Arnold