Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Dr. Klumpp reports on 2020 Cook County judicial candidate spending

by Albert J. Klumpp

With the 2020 election cycle behind us, and with nearly all of the required candidate filings now on record, it was time for my biennial slog through the hundreds of campaign finance reports filed by judicial candidates here in Cook County.

As mentioned before here on FWIW, part of my research on judicial elections includes compiling campaign spending totals for all of Cook County’s judicial candidates. Originally these totals were gathered strictly to measure the impact of campaign spending on election results, but with the data set now covering every candidate dating back to 1980, it has proven useful on its own for examining trends in campaign activity over time.

As usual, my procedure was to review every expense item on every report, and calculate primary- and general-election totals for each candidate covering all relevant campaign spending. In calculating the totals, items reported as in-kind contributions are included, and irrelevant items are excluded (such as loan repayments that are technically required to be reported as expenditures).

Most likely there are still a few general-election expenditures still to be disclosed, on reports filed in the coming months. But with that minor asterisk, the figures are otherwise complete. Here is a summary of what they reveal.

Record setting spending for Supreme Court vacancy

The seven candidates for the Freeman vacancy on the Illinois Supreme Court spent a total of more than $5.4 million on their campaigns. Shelly Harris was by far the biggest spender at $2.1 million—most of that on broadcast media advertising—establishing a new record for spending by a Supreme Court candidate in Cook County. (Harris also holds the record for Appellate Court campaign spending, at an inflation-adjusted $1.1 million for his successful 2014 campaign.) Every candidate, though, spent at least $290,000 and six of the seven spent $480,000 or more.

Figure 1 compares the primary-election spending in the Freeman contest to that of previous primaries for supreme court vacancies in Cook County. The older figures are inflation-adjusted into November 2020 dollars to provide a proper comparison.

Lower Courts reach new high in spending in 2020

The remaining 110 candidates for Appellate Court (6) and Circuit Court (104) vacancies spent a total of $9.2 million. Two years earlier a total of $8.7 million was spent (coincidentally also by 110 candidates), setting a new high for a single election cycle. That amount was eclipsed in 2020.

The ten biggest spenders in Circuit Court contests for countywide and subcircuit vacancies were:

The most significant figures among the Circuit Court candidates are the record-breaking totals in the two general election contests for the vacancies in the 12th and 13th subcircuits. The total general election spending by the Democrat and Republican candidate pairs was $674,000 in the 12th and $491,000 in the 13th, both far above the previous record of $271,000 in the 12th in 2004 (or $369,000 in 2020 dollars).

Frank DiFranco, a Republican running in a once-competitive subcircuit that has voted increasingly Democratic over the years, obliterated the previous total spending record for a Circuit Court candidate (James Shapiro, 2018, $491,000 / inflation-adjusted $507,000) but fell just short of victory in the general election. Susanne Groebner also surpassed the previous record, running successfully as a Democrat in the historically Republican but recently more competitive 13th Subcircuit.

Historical Trends

In the November/December 2019 issue of the CBA Record, I presented an analysis of my spending data, focusing on how spending behavior has changed over time. Figures 2 and 3 are taken from the Record article and show, respectively, median spending amounts by decade and numbers of candidates spending $100,000 or more by decade.

How do the 2020 numbers compare to these results? Median spending by countywide Circuit Court candidates was roughly $47,000, slightly below the previous decade’s median; the figure for subcircuit candidates was roughly $49,000, slightly above. There were only six appellate court candidates, too few for useful insight.

Individual election cycles can be variable enough to make year-to-year comparisons difficult; this in fact was the reason for the charts displaying decade figures instead of single-year figures. So the median amounts are not necessarily revealing. But consider the numbers of $100,000 spenders: In the entire decade of the 2010s there were 101 candidates who spent $100,000 or more on their campaigns. In 2020 alone there were 30 such candidates.

Figures 2 and 3 show that spending is has become a bigger and bigger part of judicial candidacies in recent years. And while research has found that spending has only the smallest, barely detectable impact on election results in countywide judicial contests, this has not discouraged countywide circuit and appellate candidates from spending as aggressively as subcircuit candidates (who, research has shown, receive a far greater electoral return per dollar).

The 2020 figures, while not conclusive on their own, show no sign that the increasingly aggressive spending of Cook County judicial candidates has yet leveled off.


Albert J. Klumpp has been a generous and frequent contributor to FWIW over the years. A research analyst with a public policy PhD, Klumpp is the author of several scholarly works analyzing judicial elections including, most recently, "Evaluating Judicial Merit Selection," in the November 2020 issue of Arizona Attorney (the link will take you the magazine website; you'll have to click around a bit to access the article). The CBA Record article referred to in the article above is "Campaign Spending in Cook County Judicial Elections."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And you wonder why "or you could just run" says "or you could just run." How much did Tiesha Smith spend? She won her race when: (1) her mother named her "Tiesha Smith"; and (2) when the second Irish lady ran for the same slot.

There is a large amount of luck to these things. But you never know unless you try. So yes, I say "or you can just run." Because the success rate that Toni Preckwinkle was pushing earlier this week was misleading as hell if not an outright lie.