Super wealthy candidates for governor spending at record pace

An in-depth look at money in Illinois politics

CHICAGO — Gov. Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker, two extremely rich men, spent a combined $228.9 million in the governors race so far, setting an Illinois record that's just shy of the 2010 governor campaign in California.

Money talks in Illinois politics, and people hear Rauner and Pritzker loud and clear. With one guy worth half a billion dollars and the other worth more than $3 billion, they’re so loud other voices are being drowned out.

Not only are they self-funding their campaigns, they’re subsiding their political parties as well. The political takeover started when Rauner spent more than $65 million during the primary and general election in 2014. Much of the money came from Rauner’s own bank account, businessman Richard Uihlein, and hedge fund CEO Ken Griffin, the richest man in Illinois.

Alisa Kaplan keeps an eye on money in state politics as part of the team at Reform for Illinois.

"This is completely unprecedented for two people to have the level of control that they have over their respective parties," Kaplan said.

As this primary season got underway, Rauner deposited tens of millions into his account. Then Pritzker gave his campaign committee $146 million.

"Just the ability to blanket the airwaves with ads and stuff those mailboxes with mailers is a really huge advantage," Kaplan said.

Rauner would go on to spend $63 million dollars on the Republican primary alone. His opponent, State Rep. Jeannie Ives, spent about $4 million.

On the Democratic side, Pritzker spent $68 million on the primaries, $60 million more than the next closest competitor. State Sen. Daniel Biss spent $7 million — which isn't chump change. So while Biss was on television, Pritzker was on way more.

"I think obviously money is really important in politics, and candidates with access to different levels of resources have different opportunities,"

Biss later acknowledged, "money is really important in politics."

"So when these folks are in Springfield or Washington making decisions for us the back of their mind a lot of time that next fundraiser that they’re going to be trying to have in a week and a half," Biss said. "Too often they’re worried about how their vote in Springfield or Washington are gonna influence their ability to raise money afterward."

House Speaker Michael Madigan has no Republican challenger this November, but he’s collected more than $11 million since last year, and he funnels that money to loyal Democrats. On the other side, Republican House Leader Jim Durkin will likely win re-election, but nevertheless collected $3.5 million that he’s shared with candidates he likes.

"The danger is that this very top-down structure, where many of the individuals, candidates, officials and organizations run the risk of being indebted to one individual," Kaplan said.

Making matters worse are Independent Expenditure Committees or Super PACs.

"It’s the cancer in politics," Weisbach

A former fundraiser for the national Democratic Party, Lou Weisbach calls them the "cancer in politics," saying big bucks make government unresponsive to the needs of citizens.

"You tell me what the Democratic Party stands for. You tell me what the Republican Party stands for. You can’t really answer the question because all politicians stand for whatever it takes to win their next election," Weisbach said.

Republicans and Democrats both agree the solution is campaign finance reform, but getting there will require blowing up the entire system.

The ideas vary. Some support so-called fair elections where small-donor donations are matched with public funds. Others back giving voters a voucher that they can hand over to the candidate of their choice.

Weisbach is thinking bigger. He wants to change the constitution to ban money from political campaigns. It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but after this year’s blowout, Weisbach thinks things could change. Voters could be ready to get the money out of politics.

"I think the country is in a place right now where we are prepared and ready to cross that line," Weisbach.

The Illinois Senate approved a small-donor matching program last year, but it has stalled in the House.