Millions of dollars were poured into the primary race, while residents were bombarded with mail shots and television advertisements, including one voiced by the sitting president of the United States.
This unprecedented face-off is not for the chance to compete for a seat in the U.S. Senate or even House: It is a fight for the right to be a representative in the Illinois General Assembly.
Welcome to the 5th Legislative District in Chicago, a key battleground in what can only be termed the war between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, and the unions.
It’s a battle over workers’ rights and collective bargaining. And it’s the most keenly watched state level ballot count today.
But even political veterans, who had watched as an unprecedented amount of dollars were spent on the race between incumbent Democratic Rep. Ken Dunkin and his challenger to represent the party, Juliana Stratton, were taken aback when the power of the White House was brought into the fray last week.
“That was shocking to me and to many other people,” said Sarah Brune, executive director of the non-partisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “It absolutely was not expected. It's surprising to see a sitting president. It's fascinating. This whole race has just been a proxy battle for the balance of power (in Illinois).”
But in the Stratton-supporting ad airing constantly over the last week, President Obama makes no mention of this proxy battle, or anything to do with state-wide politics. Instead, he talks of how Stratton, the director of the Center for Public Safety and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has spent her career serving the community and working on juvenile justice issues.
“Julianna will fight to get guns off our street and fight for tougher penalties for violent offenders,” the president states.
Illinois is in the middle of a crippling, near-nine-month budget deadlock that has led to cuts in services across the state. A number of mini-budgets were passed to keep some services limping along.
But Gov. Rauner is also insisting on non-budget reforms that includes change to the unemployment insurance system, and to collective bargaining, chiefly allowing local municipalities to opt out of such arrangements with the unions.
Rauner argues these changes, and others, need to be enacted to make the state more business friendly. Madigan, and Senate President John Cullerton, said these issues are nothing to do with the budget. There is no chance Democrats will allow a budget to pass with these reforms attached.
There is more. Rauner and the state’s largest public sector union, AFSCME, are deadlocked on contract negotiations.
Last November, Dunkin broke ranks with his Democratic colleagues on two key bills, with his failure to vote allowing both to fail. Cue the challenge to his seat, with the primary essentially a general election, given the district is overwhelmingly Democratic.
A total of $4.5 million was poured into the race. Stratton received much of her funds from unions, while Dunkin is bankrolled by the Illinois Opportunity Project, a group led by businessman Dan Proft, a close associate of Rauner.
Only $9,000 has been contributed by local donors, said Brune of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
“It really is unprecedented. The most unprecedented because of the involvement of state level SuperPacs. A dismal amount of money has been given by local donors.”
Residents are fed up with the avalanche of mailers and television ads, Brune said, adding that it appears Dunkin and Stratton two are running neck and neck in the race. There has been no significant publicly available poll numbers.
This race and a heavily funded challenge to Madigan in his district are “signals from the governor's office that we're going to take this on on every front, we're going to contest everything,” Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, told the Chicago Tribune. “And if you think the primary's bad, wait until you get to the general.”