Illinois Super PAC Donations Already Changing Landscape of 2016 Legislative Races

In 2011, with the state reeling from campaign finance abuses exposed in the Rod Blagojevich scandal, Illinois enacted its first-ever limits on campaign contributions.

Boiled down to its essentials, the law limits donations to political candidates to $5,400 from individuals, $10,800 from corporations, unions or trade associations and $53,900 from another candidate's political fund. (There's a lot more to it, of course. The complete law is here.)

But that doesn't mean candidates can't get contributions bigger than those limits, nor are political candidates the only ones affected by the law.

Committees controlled by the state's political parties, for example, can give unlimited amounts to candidates in general elections. And political party committees can receive unlimited donations from political candidate campaign committees. Thus, Bruce Rauner's Citizens for Rauner fund, which now holds $19.5 million, can easily be channeled to supported candidates through the Illinois Republican Party's committee. Likewise with the four committees controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan.

But there also are circumstances in which contribution limit rules are nullified. If a candidate puts $250,000 of his or her own money into a statewide race or $100,000 into a legislative race, all limits come off for all candidates in that contest. Bruce Rauner's self-funding allowed the 2014 gubernatorial contest to become the most expensive in state history, as large donations poured into both his fund and that of Pat Quinn.

And then there are so-called independent expenditure committees, which are subject to no limits, but are prohibited from coordinating their activities with or donating directly to a candidate. Commonly known as Super PACs, independent expenditure committees exist to support or oppose political candidates or other electoral efforts. Once an independent expenditure committee spends $250,000 for or against a candidate in a statewide race or $100,000 for or against a legislative candidate, all limits come off for all candidates in that race.

In the 2016 primary election cycle, we've already seen limits dissolved in two races. The independent committee IllinoisGO in January spent $240,000 on behalf of Democratic Chicago State Rep. Ken Dunkin. That opened the door for a $500,000 donation on Feb. 1 to Dunkin's campaign from the conservative Illinois Opportunity Project.

In southwest-central Illinois, an independent expenditure committee with ties to the Illinois Opportunity Project spent $325,000 in support of Bryce Benton, the challenger of Republican incumbent Sen. Sam McCann of rural Plainview in the March 15 primary. With contribution limits now off, we can expect unions to support McCann with donations well above the $10,800 to which they would have been limited had Liberty Principles PAC not broken the barrier.

And this is only for the primary. The real money will get thrown into the Nov. 4 general election. Ever since his election, Rauner has vowed to use his resources to help elect Republicans to the General Assembly, where Democrats now hold three-fifths majorities in both the House and Senate.

We can expect Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton and the Democrats' traditional allies in organized labor and the trial bar to respond in kind.

Get ready to see previous spending records in local legislative races fall in a barrage of campaign ads.

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