SPRINGFIELD — For many, the 2016 races for the Illinois General Assembly represent a series of battles in a proxy war between first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Rauner and his fellow Republicans have cast Tuesday’s election as a choice between reform and the status quo created by the Democrats’ long dominance of state government. They’ve made Madigan public enemy No. 1 in a multimillion-dollar ad barrage linking every Democratic candidate to him.
“If voters like the way things are going in the state of Illinois, if they like what the state Legislature has done, they should vote for Democrats, they should vote for … Mike Madigan’s candidates,” said Nick Klitzing, executive director of the state Republican Party. “If they want a new direction, if they believe that reform is possible in Illinois, then they should give Republicans a shot.”
Madigan and his fellow Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the election offers a chance to defend the middle class against the “extremism” of Rauner and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“Democrats are focused on trying to put the state back on track, trying to work cooperatively,” said Steve Brown, a spokesman for Madigan and the state party. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do for almost two years now, met at every different turn with an agenda that really wants to disadvantage middle-class families, put more money in the pockets of the 1-percenters.”
Nearly halfway into Rauner’s term without a full state budget in place, others, including former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, view the balloting as a contest between the wealthy governor’s money, more than $32 million of which is bankrolling the GOP’s campaign efforts, and his record.
However one views the elections, Tuesday’s outcome will help chart the course Illinois takes to end its historic budget impasse and right its fiscal ship. Lawmakers and the governor put that fight on hold until after Election Day by passing a stopgap spending plan this summer that runs through Dec. 31.
The balance of power in the next General Assembly will come down to the results in a handful of high-profile, high-cost legislative races downstate and in the Chicago suburbs. Southern Illinois and the Quad Cities area have become major battlegrounds, with Republicans taking aim at Democratic incumbents and both parties trying to flip seats long held by the other side.
All 118 House seats are on the ballot, though only 48 are contested. Republicans need to pick up just one seat to end the Democrats’ 71-member, veto-proof majority, which has existed on paper more than in practice.
In the Senate, where 40 out of 59 seats are on the ballot, there are 13 contested races. Republicans would need to gain four seats to end the Democrats’ better-functioning, 39-member supermajority.
Republicans would need even bigger gains to win control of either chamber, something almost no one believes will happen in a presidential election year, when Democrats typically get a boost from higher voter turnout.
Despite the record-breaking sums being spent by both sides, David Yepsen, who retired Monday as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said anyone who’s expecting a major shift in the political landscape come Wednesday is likely to be disappointed.
“We’re going to wake up on the day after the election, and Bruce Rauner will still be governor, and the Democrats will still be in control of the Legislature,” Yepsen said. “And what is going to change as a result of this? If anything, I think the partisanship will continue.”
After a bruising campaign season that has featured months of relentless TV ads and mailers in some districts, “the Democrats will come in angry,” he said.
“Now, the race for governor in 2018 will be on,” Yepsen said. “And so we move right from this campaign right into the partisanship of that campaign.”