Republicans who are trying to keep their sole legislative seat in Chicago have spent more on television advertising there — $2 million — than for any other statehouse district race in the nation as they seek to loosen the Democrats' grip on Illinois.
The figures, highlighted in a report released Thursday by the Center for Public Integrity, show the Chicago contest has helped make Illinois the biggest spender on TV ads for both GOP and Democratic legislative candidates in the U.S. for this election cycle to the tune of nearly $14 million since Jan. 1, 2015. Second in the U.S. is Florida with about $8 million.
The staggering amount spent in Illinois reflects the struggle between GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic leaders amid an epic budget stalemate. Democrats are trying to strengthen their control of the Legislature while Rauner wants to give his party greater influence.
The former venture capitalist has contributed $14 million of his own money to the Illinois Republican Party to support GOP candidates.
With about a month left before the election, Republicans have paid nearly $2 million for ads to reach people in the Chicago district, where two years ago, a total of 30,000 voters cast ballots in the state House race.
"We are talking about unprecedented numbers," said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois in Springfield who specializes in campaign finance.
It already was a record-busting year due to the most expensive legislative primary race in Illinois. Prior to this year, Redfield said the most spent on a legislative race was $3.6 million in 2014.
The Chicago race pits GOP Rep. Michael McAuliffe, a 20-year veteran of the Illinois House, against Democrat Merry Marwig, a political newcomer on leave from her job at a Chicago software company.
McAuliffe is the only Republican legislator in Chicago, representing what's considered a moderate district northwest of the city center that many police officers, firefighters, and teachers call home. The district includes part of Park Ridge, the neighborhood where Hillary Clinton grew up.
Democrats have a comfortable supermajority in the state Senate, but in the House it's a fragile one. If any of the 71 Democrats defects, they lose their power to override Rauner's vetoes. McAuliffe's district is an appealing pick-up opportunity for Democrats, especially in a year when Clinton is running for president, so it's not unexpected for Republicans to try to defend his seat.
Even so, the amount they're spending is remarkable. In 2012, for example, the Republicans' two major party committees spent just over $2 million combined on all races from July 1 through Sept. 30.
"They might be trying to dishearten the Democrats and their contributors to say, 'How can we compete?'" said Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
Some of the GOP-funded TV spots in the McAuliffe race are reaching people who aren't even in his district. During a Cubs game Aug. 1, Republicans spent $6,500 for a 30-second ad. His ads have run more than 1,000 times as of Monday, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
For his part, McAuliffe seems a bit shy about the attention, saying he would prefer to get voters' attention in person.
"Just go door-to-door and just talk to voters like that," he said.
The House Republican Organization, which receives its funding from the state GOP, has paid for most of McAuliffe's television advertising.
Marwig, the Democrat, has spent about $187,690 on television ads so far, according to figures from the Center for Public Integrity.
"For me, this is about the concerns of our community and that's why I spend so much time out here talking to real people," she said Wednesday while walking the district.
The $14 million spent so far on TV ads in Illinois includes $1.5 million spent by Juliana Stratton in the March primary to defeat fellow Democrat and incumbent Rep. Ken Dunkin, who broke with his party on key votes in the 2015 session. Both sides combined to spend more than $6 million on ad buys and other campaign expenses, a state record.
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