Every election cycle, House Democratic candidates have to pay what can be thought of as a "Madigan Tax."
The “tax” is the amount of extra campaign money, labor, and ingenuity required to overcome the voting public’s strong negative perception of being in any way associated with House Speaker Michael Madigan.
The tax has always been imposed because Madigan has always been unpopular in this state. But the tax rate has risen over the years as Madigan's familiarity and unpopularity have grown.
Back in October of 2012, a Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll found that 38 percent of Illinoisans had no opinion either way about Madigan. Of those who did, 22 percent approved of his job performance, compared to 40 percent who disapproved.
And then Bruce Rauner got into the game and his constant, well-funded attacks on Madigan made the longtime House Speaker much better known to the average voter.
Only 11 percent of voters had no opinion of Madigan in a 2017 poll taken for the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Not only did lots more voters know who Madigan was, they also despised him. Madigan’s disapproval rating was 61 percent in that poll, well above his 26 percent approval rating.
That could explain why Madigan’s House Democrats lost four net seats in 2016, despite a strong statewide win by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Part of the blame can go to Donald Trump, who did well in Downstate areas held by Democrats, but a big reason was that the Madigan tax had become too high in those districts.
The #MeToo controversy swirling around Madigan these days has the potential to make that tax rate even more prohibitive for Madigan's operation. He's taken two substantial hits over the past several days which might have sunk a lesser man. Madigan had to dump two top campaign advisers after #MeToo scandals, and more controversy is almost undoubtedly on the way.
While the focus should be on the victims, we cannot escape the political realities.
With that in mind, keep an eye on the 17th House District Democratic primary race on the tony North Shore. The district is currently represented by Representative Laura Fine (D-Glenview), who is running unopposed in the Senate primary. Representative Fine and several other local political leaders have endorsed Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz. But Candace Chow has enough money and support to compete.
Chow also has some very slick direct mailers.
"Candance Chow didn't need Mike Madigan to get from a trailer park to Kellogg Business School," declares her latest mail piece. "And she doesn't need him now." The front features a graduation cap on which somebody has taped the phrase "No Thx Mike." Clever.
Chow’s campaign took a poll late last year which found 60 percent of the district's likely Democratic voters (not all voters, just Democratic voters) had an unfavorable view of Speaker Madigan, while just 36 percent of Democrats viewed him favorably. 70 percent of the district’s Democrats expressed doubts about voting for a candidate who was backed by Madigan and his team.
Madigan has never played particularly well in that more liberal part of the world and Chow's mailer goes on to trash him further. "While others lean on Mike Madigan and Springfield lobbyists, Candance Chow is the progressive, independent Democrat, who will put our schools and our families first."
Chow has also recently taken to demanding that Gong-Gershowitz return Madigan's campaign contributions. The House Speaker has dumped over $50K into the Gong-Gershowitz bid so far, mainly on mail and staff.
"It's become clear that Jennifer's campaign is under the control of Mike Madigan's political operation," Chow said of Gong-Gershowitz in a press release earlier this month. Chow's release also noted Madigan "is under a growing cloud from charges of sexual harassment."
Last week, Chow called for Madigan's resignation from his Democratic Party chairmanship "in light of continued reports of sexual harassment and abuse of power within his political operation."
Noting that Gong-Gershowitz had yet to comment on the Madigan stories, Chow said, "It makes you wonder how much autonomy her campaign truly has from Madigan at this point."
There are six candidates in this primary race, which should benefit Gong-Gershowitz because she has big-name local backing and is raising lots of Statehouse money and has ground support. Under normal circumstances, even with the "Madigan Tax," she would be expected to walk away with this one. But these aren't normal times.
Whatever happens, Chow's attempt to turn Madigan's already controversial contributions into fatal poison with the #MeToo issue is a first. And it might just spread. He could possibly wind up being “taxed” out of existence.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.