Big Money in Smaller Races

The influence of big money in 10 contested state legislative primaries

  Campaign contribution analysis on March 2018 primary contests in Illinois state legislative races shows the impact that big money has in smaller races too.


With the end of the March 2018 primary elections yesterday, there’s a lot of buzz about who Illinois voters chose to see on the ballot in the fall. What often gets overlooked, however, is that there’s another “unofficial” primary that did not end Tuesday night: this is the “money primary.”

“Money primary” refers to the increasing importance placed on a candidate’s access to major money in fundraising for their campaign in order to stand out from the rest of the pack—and sometimes, just to remain part of the pack.

While the scale of campaign financing is an important part of any election analysis, it is only part of the story. Just as significant, is the type of donors contributing to these staggering numbers. Not only is more money going into elections, but campaign finance is increasingly dominated by “big money” from a small group of wealthy donors.

Everyone already knows about the major role money plays in the race for Governor. But what about the other state races? As an unprecedented number of state legislators in IL are not seeking reelection this year, the field of contenders is more crowded than ever. With that in mind, Illinois PIRG Education Fund took a closer look at campaign contributions in 10 competitive races in 9 state legislative districts.

We found, in the contested party primaries for these 9 state legislative districts, that 91 percent of contributions came from donors giving $1,000 or more, while only 3 percent came from donors giving $150 or less.

Further, candidates with the most money in contested primaries in these 9 districts received 95 percent of their campaign funds from big donors giving $1,000 or more, and less than 1 percent from donors giving $150 or less.

Finally, while the candidate with the most money does not always win, 9 of the 10 contested races in the 9 districts were won by the candidate with the most resources. The one candidate with the most resources who lost was the self-funded candidate Sam Stratemeyer in the 118th district Republican Primary.