The emails started arriving as heads were still spinning in the state Capitol over Democrats ramming through a state budget proposal. The missives from Republicans on Wednesday accused the majority party of approving a plan that’s out of balance by $7 billion.
By the next night, voters were receiving automated “robocalls,” paid for by the GOP, accusing Democrats in key swing districts of siding with House Speaker Michael Madigan to “force record high income tax rates.”
Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic leaders may be fighting over how to resolve the nation’s only remaining state budget deadlock, but they’re also keeping a constant eye on the November election, and how each vote and each statement can help them or hurt them come Election Day.
Each side is preparing to spend millions as Rauner and other Republicans campaign to weaken the Democrats’ years-long dominance in the General Assembly.
Republicans paint Democrats as interested only in raising taxes and opposing reforms, while the Democrats accuse the GOP of trying to help the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and vulnerable residents. The attacks have gone on for months but have intensified in recent weeks with emails, news conferences and TV ads over everything from term limits to the minimum amount workers on state construction projects should earn.
The election-focused politics are a major reason Illinois doesn’t have a state budget nearly 11 months into the fiscal year, and why lawmakers likely aren’t motivated to pass a deal for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, before lawmakers adjourn their spring session Tuesday.
“Both sides are so focused on partisan politics and the upcoming election that they refuse to do their job,” said Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat who often votes with Republicans. Franks announced earlier this month he’s leaving the Legislature, due largely, he says, to Springfield’s gridlock.
The main players in the fight are Rauner, a multimillionaire businessman who to date has been stymied by Democrats on his promise to “shake up” the state, weaken unions and enact pro-business reforms, and Madigan, who has become the nation’s longest-serving state House speaker with strong support from organized labor.
Each is expected to spend millions to attack and promote different candidates in the fall campaign. Rauner already has set aside $20 million for that purpose, and earlier this month gave $5 million to the state GOP.
The prize is Democrats’ veto-proof supermajorities. On paper, the party has enough seats to override a Rauner veto in both the Senate and House. While that group is large enough to consistently do so in the Senate, at least three House Democrats have been known to defect from Madigan’s majority, leading to failed veto overrides or skipped attempts on key issues such as stop-gap funding for child care or union arbitration.
Madigan dispatched one of those outliers, Rep. Ken Dunkin of Chicago, by running a successful opponent against him in the March primary. Now, Madigan is looking to pick up a few more seats in November — an outcome that would allow Democrats to ensure legislation either becomes law or doesn’t.
Rauner and the GOP are hoping to not only stop that from happening, but to further deflate Madigan’s numbers. Republicans say there are as many as 24 House seats where they plan to compete, though their fiercest battles will likely be in about a half-dozen districts scattered throughout Illinois.
While Rauner has recently talked up the need for compromise, he struck a more combative tone at this month’s state GOP convention, promising “the biggest ground game that’s ever been done in legislative races in Illinois history” while blaming Democrats for running Illinois “into the ground.”
“This election cycle is critical,” Rauner said. “We have got to pick up seats against Mike Madigan’s Democrats and the Chicago political machine.”
Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, while publicly agreeing to participate in “working groups” that aim to negotiate a potential budget deal, have also been in campaign mode.
At a union rally in Springfield earlier this month, Madigan thanked demonstrators for their support during “this epic struggle” with Rauner, then led them in a call-and-answer to shout down the governor’s priorities, which he described as lowering wages and sending injured workers “to welfare.”
“The governor thinks you make too much money,” Cullerton yelled. “So all I can tell you is we’re going to stay tough, we’re going to fight for your interest and the middle class.”
Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno has accused Democrats of trying to avoid tough votes on raising taxes or other issues until after the election, allowing Illinois to go “off the deep end.”
“But I’ll tell you, every single rank-and-file Democrat who follows the speaker is on notice that they are a party to this,” she said.