SPRINGFIELD — When Gov. Bruce Rauner and his fellow Republicans talk about creating term limits for elected officials and taking lawmakers out of the process of redrawing legislative districts, they’re taking on one of the most powerful forces in politics, both in Illinois and nationwide.
But it’s not long-serving Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago or the state Democratic Party that he leads. It’s the power of incumbency.
By analyzing data from state legislative races across the country in 2013 and 2014, the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics determined that voters re-elected 91 percent of incumbents running in general elections. Current officeholders who raised more campaign cash than their opponents were even more likely to retain their seats, winning 94 percent of their races.
“Incumbency was the most powerful single factor determining a state legislative candidate’s success in the 2013 and 2014 elections, followed closely by the power of money,” Linda Casey, the institute’s lead researcher, wrote in a March report. The trend has held relatively steady since the 2001 and 2002 state election cycles, according to the institute.
The power of incumbency was even stronger in Illinois in 2014, with only one incumbent out of 124 — former state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline — losing in the general election. Three other incumbents, two Democrats and one Republican, withdrew after the primaries.
While it would be more than a decade before term limits or redistricting reform could reduce the advantage of incumbency, Rauner and his wealthy allies are trying to use their millions to tip the scales this year by heavily funding challengers in key races.
Jacobs’ defeat at the hands of now-state Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Rock Island, was a rare loss for an incumbent who raised more money than his challenger. Jacobs spent $2.1 million to Anderson’s $1.9 million in the most expensive legislative race in Illinois history, according to an analysis from Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
While Jacobs outraised and outspent Anderson, contributions totaling more than $1.5 million from the Illinois Republican Party and the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee helped the newcomer narrow the funding gap.
It’s a formula Republicans hope to repeat in the Nov. 8 election to cut into the Democrats’ supermajorities in the House and Senate.
As Rauner put it at an event earlier in October, “We need to be a two-party state, and I have tried my best to make sure that we have a strong, principled Republican Party in Illinois.”
He and first lady Diana Rauner have done that by personally contributing nearly $31.6 million to various Republican campaign committees and conservative political action committees since the 2014 election.
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said the power of incumbency is based on both name recognition within the district and access to campaign donors.
“Republicans have been able to level that playing field against some incumbents,” Yepsen said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Redfield said that if a significant number of Republican challengers are able to unseat Democrats, it won’t just be the challenges of fundraising and name recognition they’ll have overcome. They’ll also have overcome a legislative map that was drawn to protect Democratic incumbents, he said.
If that happens, Redfield said, Rauner will have sent a message to Democrats that “you better deal with me because I have unlimited money and I can move the needle in elections.”
Whether the money Republicans are spending on that effort will be enough to overcome the power of incumbency won’t be known until Nov. 9.
“That’s the multimillion-dollar question,” said Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending and advocates for transparency. “Is all this money going to move the needle?”