More Illinois candidates fund their own campaigns

By Eric Cortellessa

selffund graph

Like a growing number of candidates, Republican Bruce Rauner isn’t letting money hold him back.

As Nov. 4 nears and the polls tighten, Bruce Rauner, the former private equity fund manager, is capitalizing on his personal wealth. He has contributed $12.6 million to his own campaign, which makes him the third highest political self-funder in Illinois history.

Jim Oberweis, dairy magnate and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, also has been his own best contributor. Oberweis, who has ran for national office four times before and spent more than $8.5 million on those campaigns, gave his current campaign a $500,000 boost in January.

In today’s political culture, a growing number of candidates like Rauner and Oberweis have the means to write checks to themselves. But some political scientists don’t think that’s a good thing.

James Campbell, a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, calls the practice “one of the highly flawed aspects of our campaign finance system.” It gives the richest candidates an enormous advantage and poses a threat to the integrity of American democracy, he argues.

Campbell also believes it will be a tough thing to change. “Constitutionally, it’s very difficult to do anything about preventing people to spend their own money on themselves,” he said.

It can be a sign of desperation when a candidate pumps money into his or her campaign but not always, said Vinny Minchillo, a partner at Glass House Strategy, a political consulting firm.

“It could be that they are receiving a lot of donations and large organizations like the Republican Governor’s Association or the Republican National Committee aren’t giving them as much as they would like because the organization thinks the money could be distributed elsewhere more wisely,” he said.

A candidate may choose to put their own money into their campaign for a variety of reasons, Campbell pointed out.

“It could be liquidity issues, that they didn’t raise enough money early and are spending faster than they are gathering contributions,” he said. “It could be that their prospects look good and they need an infusion that they think can help them surge.”

If Rauner pumps more of his own money into the race, he will likely climb the ranks to become the second highest political self-funder in Illinois, a title that presently belongs to Peter Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, the former U.S. senator, spent more than $13 million in 1998 to unseat Carol Mosley Braun.

But Rauner likely won’t reach the level of Blair Hull, who claims the No. 1 spot. Hull spent roughly $30 million in his attempt to be the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2004. Despite that influx of cash, he lost to the then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Of course, even Hull didn’t come close to Jon Corzine, the former Democratic governor of New Jersey, who once spent over $62 million to win an election.

Rauner’s candidacy shares an additional feature with Hull’s: a lack of prior political and governmental experience. That is the predominant pattern of political self-funders, said political consultant Minchillo.

“These are usually people who did not come up in the political system,” he said. “Often these are people who are running for the first or second time. This is a different kind of candidate.”

Minchillo has played a role on other self-funded campaigns such as Meg Whitman’s bid for governor of California in 2010. Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard and the former CEO of eBay, ran as the Republican nominee and spent more of her own money than any other political candidate in American history—roughly $140 million. Even so, she lost to Jerry Brown.

“These campaigns are run like a business,” Minchillo said. “These candidates tend to be very business savvy. When it’s your own money in a campaign, it’s a very personal thing and that means they are going to want to be very involved in how the money is being spent. A lot of candidates don’t get that involved in the business side of the campaign; a lot don’t have the acumen for that.”

Rauner, who made a fortune as chairman of the private equity firm, GTCR, has outraised incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn in a race that is particularly noted for its high spending. Quinn had raised $31 million, according to his latest campaign filing with the Illinois Board of Elections.

“This is going to be the most expensive election in Illinois gubernatorial history,” said Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former alderman.

Simpson doesn’t believe the outcome of the election will rest on the size of each campaign’s spending, just as it didn’t with Whitman.

“Generally speaking it’s not the candidate who raises the most money who wins,” he said. “They win if their opponent doesn’t have enough money to get their message out.”

Both Rauner and Quinn have spent millions on television advertising and mailers to familiarize the public with who they are. That leads Simpson to believe voters will head to the polls with a reasonable amount of information.

The question for him isn’t about spending anymore; it’s about how many voters show up at the polls.

“The election will turn on turnout,” he said. “It depends on which voters show up, particularly Democratic voters.”

Minchillo agrees, saying that Quinn’s campaign is based on galvanizing the base of Democratic and independent voters who participate in presidential elections but tend to skip mid-term voting.

“If they can turn out the Obama voters from 2012, then no problem,” he said. “Rauner’s campaign has spent a lot of money to excite the Republican base, but they’re also trying to specifically turn off those voters.”

The latest polling conducted by CBS News, the New York Times and YouGov Global has Rauner down 3 percentage points compared with Quinn and Oberweis down 12 compared with U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin.