Tom Kacich | The million-dollar race for the 104th Illinois House District

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There’s a dearth of races for the Illinois House of Representatives in East Central Illinois.

State Rep. Carol Ammons, a Democrat who represents the 103rd District that covers Champaign-Urbana, is unopposed. And a half-dozen Republicans whose districts extend into East Central Illinois — Tom Bennett of Gibson City, Chris Miller of Oakland, Brad Halbrook of Shelbyville, Dan Caulkins of Decatur, Adam Niemerg of Dieterich, and even newcomer Dennis Tipsword of Metamora — have a free pass in Tuesday’s general election. They have no Democratic opponent.

But Rep. Mike Marron, a Republican from rural Fithian who is seeking a third House term, has a race with enough competition to make up for the others. Marron is being challenged for the third consecutive time by Cynthia Cunningham, a social-service worker from rural St. Joseph.

Marron easily defeated Cunningham the first two times, winning with almost 56 percent of the vote in 2018 and with more than 58 percent in 2020.

But the new 104th District, redrawn by the Illinois Legislature after the 2020 Census, is more Democratic than the old one. It includes Danville, Rantoul and, crucially, areas just north of Champaign and Urbana that have been trending Democratic in recent elections. And it no longer takes in the Republican areas of St. Joseph and Ogden.

The new 104th District is genuinely competitive. Voters in the district went for Joe Biden for president two years ago by about 4 percentage points but also favored Donald Trump in 2016 by a percentage point. Champaign County native Erika Harold, the 2018 Republican candidate for attorney general, won the district by almost 15 percentage points. In the same election, perennially popular Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White won by 27 percentage points.

The up-for-grabs race between Marron and Cunningham has attracted more than $700,000 in campaign contributions in the last five weeks and hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending on radio, TV and social media, plus countless mail pieces. Total spending on votes within the district, which covers parts of Champaign and Vermilion counties will exceed $1 million.

Democrats have been especially aggressive, pouring about $485,000 into the Cunningham campaign since Oct. 1, nearly all of it from two sources: $380,000 from Democrats for the Illinois House, a fundraising arm of Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch of Hillside, and $65,000 from the Democratic Party of Illinois. The money went to media production and purchases, digital advertising, phone banks, mail pieces, polling and staff salaries.

In the 2020 race, Cunningham’s total spending barely approached $70,000. And as of Sept. 30 in this election cycle, it was just $10,000. But hundreds of thousands of dollars have been added in recent weeks.

Marron’s campaign spending also has increased substantially. He spent less than $90,000 in the 2018 campaign and about $234,000 in 2020. But this year, his spending as of Sept. 30 was more than $260,000, and he’s since added costs for TV and radio advertising and mail pieces. His total spending will be well over a half-million dollars.

Marron, who is not aligned with the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus of Illinois House Republicans, has received campaign contributions recently of $50,00 from the Illinois Republican Party and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin; but also $20,000 from the Illinois Education Association; $15,000 from the Chicagoland Operators Joint Labor Management PAC; $8,500 from the Illinois Farm Bureau; $7,500 from Illinois Retired Teachers; and $4,000 from the Illinois Federation of Teachers. He’s also received significant contributions from trade unions: Laborers Local 703 of Urbana and the Illinois Laborers Legislative Committee each gave $10,000.

Marron enjoys trade union support in part because of his vote for an increase in the state motor fuel tax in 2019. Money from the tax increase helped to finance Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Rebuild Illinois construction plan.

But now Cunningham is making Marron’s wise, courageous gas-tax vote a central feature of her attack ads. The irony is that the gas-tax increase passed mostly with Democratic votes, including the support of Welch, and enabled Pritzker to boast of his $33 billion capital program.

As if to stress how close the race could be, on Thursday — five days before Election Day — Marron reported a $20,000 loan to his campaign, and on Friday, Cunningham was still making online campaign contribution appeals.

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November 6, 2022 at 10:43AM

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