As we put the 2016 election behind us and look toward 2018 and the Governor's race in particular the parlor game of trying to speculate how expensive the upcoming election will be has heated up. Today Governor Rauner contributed an eye-opening $50 million to his campaign fund.
In the 2014 cycle Rauner contributed almost $38 million to his own campaign fund, but $10 million of that came after the election and was actually used in the 2016 cycle to help the Republican legislative effort. This fall when it was reported that the Governor's personal earnings had reached $188 million, up from a pauper-like $58 million the year before, there was speculation that the Governor would spend even more this cycle. This $50 million reported today is listed as a contribution, not a loan, and while he could always refund part or all of it at some point in the future it certainly sent a message.
But in addition to the political ramifications of an influx this size the timing is also relevant. You may recall that the Governor gave his campaign fund $2 million in February of this year and another $5 million in September, in fact $7,750,000 prior to today for this cycle, however the contribution limits have not been lifted for the upcoming Governor's race even though these amounts are greater than the $250,000 in personal funds that would normally lift the caps. Here's why from the relevant section of the law, relevant emphasis mine:
5/9-8.5 Limitations on campaign contributions. (h) Self-funding candidates. If a public official, a candidate, or the public official’s or candidate’s immediate family contributes or loans to the public official’s or candidate's political committee or to other political committees that transfer funds to the public official’s or candidate’s political committee or makes independent expenditures for the benefit of the public official’s or candidate’s campaign during the 12 months prior to an election in an aggregate amount of more than (i) $250,000 for statewide office or (ii) $100,000 for all other elective offices, then the public official or candidate shall file with the State Board of Elections, within one day, a Notification of Selffunding that shall detail each contribution or loan made by the public official, the candidate, or the public official’s or candidate’s immediate family. Within 2 business days after the filing of a Notification of Self-funding, the notification shall be posted on the Board’s website and the Board shall give official notice of the filing to each candidate for the same office as the public official or candidate making the filing, including the public official or candidate filing the Notification of Self-funding. Notice shall be sent via first class mail to the candidate and the treasurer of the candidate’s committee. Notice shall also be sent by e-mail to the candidate and the treasurer of the candidate’s committee if the candidate and the treasurer, as applicable, have provided the Board with an e-mail address. Upon posting of the notice on the Board’s website, all candidates for that office, including the public official or candidate who filed a Notification of Self-funding, shall be permitted to accept contributions in excess of any contribution limits imposed by subsection (b). If a public official or candidate filed a Notification of Self-Funding during an election cycle that includes a general primary election or consolidated primary election and that public official or candidate is nominated, all candidates for that office, including the nominee who filed the notification of self-funding, shall be permitted to accept contributions in excess of any contribution limit imposed by subsection (b) for the subsequent election cycle. For the purposes of this subsection, “immediate family” means the spouse, parent, or child of a public official or candidate.
We are still more than 12 months away from the next election, the 2018 primary, so this action will not remove the contribution limits. The Governor and any candidates who file against him still have to abide by contribution limits, even though the Governor has a $50 million head start and even though had this $50 million contribution come in April instead of today it would lift the contribution limits for all candidates of both parties.
Eventually there will be no contribution limits in the Governor's race, we repeatedly saw the threshold achieved in so many state legislative races that it will certainly happen in the Governor's race. But we're in a bit of a loophole in the language of the contribution limit law allowing the wealthy self-funders to stockpile large amounts of campaign cash without triggering the fairness mechanism that would lift the caps for the other candidates while they attempt to even the playing field. On the Democratic side some wealthy potential candidates have been rumored to be interested in the race, it will be interesting to see if they stockpile early cash in the next few months to get ahead of their less wealthy potential rivals.
The other interesting question is whether or not the Governor would have an advantage if the caps were lifted? There are numerous potential Democratic candidates but so far no rumored Republican primary challengers. If at any point the Governor decides he wants an expensive bloodbath on the Democratic side he only has to add $250,000 more, assuming that none of the Democrats do what's necessary to lift the caps first.
Contribution limits in Illinois have done nothing to limit money in the political system, there is more money than ever, but the rules are so convoluted that they keep creating these odd situations. With divided government that isn't likely to change any time soon.