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The loophole that unleashed an unprecedented flood of money into Illinois politics

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The New York Times's Nick Confessore has a fascinating feature piece on Illinois's recently elected Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and the unprecedented level of political spending by a small number of allies that not only got him elected but continue to finance his agenda to remake the state's politics. The whole piece is worth your time. It's a brilliant case study of a particular instance of the Democratic Party's state-level woes — there's simply no equivalent on the blue team to the ability to mobilize this level of national political support around a candidate and an agenda that is running deep behind enemy lines.

But I wanted to pull out one vignette that illustrates how difficult it is to restrain the influence of big money in politics. Illinois has caps on how much an individual can contribute to a gubernatorial campaign. But legislators were worried that such caps would make it too easy for a self-financed candidate to overwhelm a conventional one. So they said the caps would lift in the face of heavy spending by a rich candidate. So what did Rauner do? He spent heavily on his own campaign to undo the caps, and then had his friends spend heavily on his campaign as well:

To bring about a revolution in the Illinois Capitol, in Springfield, Mr. Rauner and his allies have created what amounts to a new campaign economy, in which union money has long been the financial lifeblood of both parties. Contributing millions to his own campaign, Mr. Rauner triggered a state law that removes limits on campaign contributions when a wealthy candidate spends heavily on his or her own race.

The law, intended to limit the influence of the wealthy by providing a level playing field, had the opposite effect: Freed of the restraints, supporters of Mr. Rauner poured millions more into his campaign, breaking state records. About half of the $65 million he spent through last year’s election came from himself and nine other individuals, families or companies they control. Mr. [Pat] Quinn, the incumbent, spent about $32 million, with many unions making mid-six-figure contributions.

Ten families spent about as much as the entire Quinn campaign.