By Rick Pearson
CHICAGO — National political parties and independent super political action committees have poured in more than $42 million this fall to try to sway voters in the Illinois’ top six competitive congressional races, underscoring the key national role Illinois is playing in the battle for control of the House.
The staggering total amounts to almost $10 per resident in each of the half-dozen districts. It’s also nearly four times what Democrats, Republicans and various interest groups spent here two years ago.
The influx of money reflects the Republican desire to hold onto seats the party won in Illinois in 2010 and Democratic attempts to use the state as part of plan to pick up 25 seats across the nation to take back the House. And it illustrates the big dollar political wars being waged after a Supreme Court decision opened the door to unlimited and sometimes uncharted donations to groups to influence elections.
The spending is legal — as long as it’s not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign.
At the top of the money list are the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Together, the two sides already have devoted more than $18.7 million, while super PACs and business and labor interests have added almost $24 million into the House contests, according to a Chicago Tribune review of federal campaign finance records. Those figures do not includes millions of dollars more in donations that were sent directly to the candidates’ campaigns.
The bulk of the money is spent on TV ads, a particularly expensive proposition in the costly Chicago media market for three suburban campaigns where most viewers won’t even have a chance to vote for any of the contenders.
If voters think the campaigns have taken on a more negative tone this year, the FEC reports bear that out. Of more than 700 expenditures by outside groups statewide, only 167 were made in support of a candidate, while the remainder were to oppose a contender.
Among the top 10 groups in spending, eight are affiliated with Republicans, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, the later co-founded by Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s political strategist. The GOP groups account for nearly $20.5 million.
On the Democratic side, the DCCC and the House Majority PAC accounted for $11.7 million. The House Majority PAC is backed by Chicago’s Fred Eychaner, the founder of Newsweb Corp. and a wealthy longtime Democratic donor. Eychaner has put $3.75 million into the group.
If there’s a surprise is in the numbers, it’s found in the nationally watched contest in the northwest and west suburban 8th Congressional District. Freshman Republican Rep. Joe Walsh, a tea party icon, is battling to keep his seat against front-running Democrat Tammy Duckworth, but the campaign is last among the state’s six swing congressional races when it comes to national assistance.
Outside groups have spent almost $5.5 million in the 8th District, including a late TV ad buy of $1.7 million for Walsh from FreedomWorks for America, the super PAC chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. FreedomWorks’ total assistance to Walsh tops $2.1 million.
Last Friday, Walsh addressed a FreedomWorks gathering in Schaumburg, telling supporters, “This is the most serious fight of our lives. Be in it for the long haul. Be in it with everything you have. Understand and respect what we’re up against... be afraid. Be afraid we might lose it.“
Walsh also has gotten $1.8 million in backing from the Now or Never conservative PAC, and the group said late Wednesday that it intends to buy more ad time. But the NRCC has only kicked in $445,302 for Walsh, who has never been close to House Republican leadership.
Duckworth’s own strong campaign fundraising, aided by the backing of top Democrats, has allowed the DCCC to put money into other races. The disabled Iraq War veteran also has gotten $195,743 of support from the House Majority PAC.
Second in Illinois is the far southwest and west suburban 11th Congressional District contest between Republican Rep. Judy Biggert and former Democratic Rep. Bill Foster, which has generated nearly $8.7 million in outside spending.
Foster, a scientist from Naperville, has seen $2 million in support from the DCCC and $1 million from the House Majority PAC. Biggert, a veteran lawmaker from Hinsdale, has gotten $2 million in help from the NRCC, $577,650 from National Education Association PAC, $540,022 from the U.S. Chamber and $537,200 from the National Association of Realtors.
Biggert also has been the recipient of $528,534 in help from American Unity, a super PAC that backs Republicans who support gay marriage. At her last debate with Foster, Biggert said she supports civil unions but wasn’t quite there yet on same-sex marriage because of some legal questions about how it would work. Foster, who opposed same-sex marriage in 2010, said he now supports it.
In the North Shore 10th Congressional District, freshman Republican Rep. Robert Dold of Kenilworth and Democrat Brad Schneider have attracted almost $6.4 million in outside cash. But Schneider, whose last finance report showed him with less than $100,000 left for the closing days of the campaign, so far has gotten little outside help.
While the NRCC is spending $2 million to back Dold, the DCCC has only spent $318,614 on Schneider’s behalf. Schneider, however, does have the benefit of $1 million in support from the House Majority PAC.
Dold, a prolific fundraiser in his own right, also received $550,000 in assistance from the U.S. Chamber, $179,143 from The New Prosperity Foundation PAC and $218,714 from Independence USA, the super PAC of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The NRCC has run ads ridiculing Schneider’s recent business record. Schneider, a management consultant, has run as a small business expert, but the group has paid for ads noting that Schneider has not reported any revenue for his firms since 2010. The organization’s ads have also bashed Schneider for not releasing his tax returns, which the Democrat has said would jeopardize his wife’s right to privacy.
Ads against Dold have echoed the Schneider campaign’s portrayal of the incumbent as a lock-step Republican voter, bracketing him with Walsh. The House Majority PAC has paid for ads hitting Dold for his votes for budgets proposed by GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan and to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law.
More recently, the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund began running TV ads against Schneider. The group earmarked $829,422 for the final week of the campaign. Schneider’s allies have bashed Dold for those ads, noting the group received a $2.5 million donation from California oil giant Chevron in early October. Dold has noted that he and his campaign are barred from coordinating with independent groups and he said he supports ending subsidies for oil companies.
Three Downstate races also have drawn big outside attention.
The most money has gone to the 17th District race. Nearly $9.2 million is being spent on the contest between freshman Republican Rep. Bobby Schilling and Democratic challenger Cheri Bustos. The district is home to several media markets, including Rockford, Peoria and the Quad Cities.
The open-seat contest in central Illinois’ 13th District between Republican Rodney Davis and Democrat David Gill has gotten $6.3 million in outside assistance. Another open seat race, the 12th District in southwestern Illinois, outside interests have spent $6.5 million on the battle between Democrat Bill Enyart and Republican Jason Plummer.