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home : news old - archive May 27, 2019

3/2/2016 1:11:00 PM
Two Illinois primaries test party loyalty

CHICAGO (AP) — Two of Illinois’ most watched state primary contests are happening in Chicago’s 5th House District and the Senate’s 50th District in Springfield and Jacksonville. Here’s a look at each of the candidates.

50th Senate District, Republican primary
Incumbent: Sam McCann
Age: 46.
Political background: Has served in the state Senate since 2011.

Challenger: Taylorville native Bryce Benton
Age: 33.
Political background: Illinois State Police trooper with no prior experience in elected office.

5th House District, Democratic primary
Incumbent: Ken Dunkin
Age: 50.
Political background: Has served in the state House since 2002.

Challenger: Juliana Stratton
Age: 50.
Political background: Most recently served as director of the Center for Public Safety and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Such is the topsy-turvy state of Illinois politics that two of the hottest primary contests this month have power brokers from both parties spending millions to boot one of their own from office.

State Rep. Ken Dunkin, a Chicago Democrat, and state Sen. Sam McCann, a Springfield Republican, face high-stake challenges, primarily for their votes on union-related issues. The races are seen as indicators of the consequences lawmakers can expect when they defy the wishes of their party leaders — House Speaker Michael Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner, respectively.

Over three decades in power, Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, has built a reputation for running a disciplined majority that rarely deviates from what he wants by being a prolific fundraiser who rewards loyalty.

Rauner, a suburban Chicago Republican, is a political newcomer and former venture capitalist who has vowed to use his wealth to help politicians who support his pro-business agenda, which includes restricting the power of unions in the state.

The races are viewed as a test of Madigan and Rauner’s relative strength during their battle over the budget that has left the state without a spending blueprint eight months into the fiscal year.

If Dunkin and McCann lose, “it will make other members of the Legislature less likely to deviate from the party line,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

But if they win, other lawmakers may be more willing to push back against party leadership.

“Here’s what I see,” Dunkin said recently at a Chicago campaign event, “after we’re successful March 15, you’re going to see other Democratic members standing up for their constituents by doing what’s right for citizens across the state and in their district. They’re going to say, ‘Oh, wow, Dunkin survived the Mike Madigan wrath.”’

McCann said he knows of Republicans in both chambers who are not voting the way they want.

“They’re afraid of the backlash,” he said.

Party unity has played a particularly important role during the state’s budget stalemate. Dunkin has been the spoiler for Democrats on several key votes affecting union allies, either by being absent or voting against party-led attempts to weaken Rauner’s position in negotiations with the state workers’ union. McCann has upset Rauner and some other Republicans by voting in favor of that bill, citing the wishes of state workers in his district, which includes Springfield and Jacksonville.

Dunkin’s race has practical implications for House Democrats, whose 71-47 advantage over Republicans gives them the power to override gubernatorial vetoes — provided they all stick together.

Dunkin’s isolation from his party was evident last month when President Barack Obama gave a speech about collaboration to state lawmakers in Springfield. Obama, who served with Dunkin in the Legislature, said voting with political counterparts doesn’t make someone a sellout.

Dunkin shouted, “Yeah!”

“Well, we’ll talk later, Dunkin,” the president responded, drawing cheers and applause from Democrats. “You just sit down.”

Amid this backdrop, money has poured into both Dunkin’s and McCann’s primaries, and unusual alliances have been formed.

The Illinois Opportunity Project, a GOP-backed group, gave Dunkin $500,000 — a staggering amount considering he has received a total of $686,300 in donations. Contributions from organized labor make up a large portion of the $337,550 in donations McCann has received.

Their opponents also are well-funded. McCann’s challenger, Republican Bryce Benton, an Illinois state trooper, has received $1.3 million from Liberty Principles PAC, a group with financial support from Rauner. The Madigan-aligned unions are funding most of Julia Stratton’s campaign against Dunkin. Stratton, a safety expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has received almost $900,000 in contributions.  

“I’m a Democrat. He used to be a Democrat,” Stratton said at a recent campaign event.

Some of the money in support of Stratton has been used for negative ads, including television spots critical of Dunkin.

Factoring in expenditures from groups that can’t coordinate with the candidates, the Dunkin-Stratton race is poised to become one of the most expensive state legislative primaries in Illinois history, with a total of $2.2 million in contributions, according to figures compiled by

“This is absolutely outside the norm,” said Sarah Brune, executive director at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

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