The Illinois Democratic Party spent nearly $260,000 on local school and library board races across the state leading up to the April 4 election, but in some high-profile contests was outspent by slates of conservative candidates pushing for a rightward turn that nonetheless failed to win seats, according to first quarter campaign disclosures.
Spending in school board races — traditionally low-cost, low-interest contests — has soared as they have become another front in national partisan political battles. For the most part, conservative candidates fared poorly in this month’s election, with the state Democratic Party and the state’s largest teacher union declaring victory in the vast majority of races in which they got involved.
But that wasn’t necessarily a reflection of outspending their opponents, first quarter state campaign finance records released this week showed.
In west suburban Wheaton and northwest suburban Barrington, for example, political committees backing slates of candidates who campaigned on conservative talking points about “parental rights,” race, gender and sexuality failed to win any school board seats despite each spending more than $30,000, according to state campaign finance records. Election results remain unofficial until being certified April 25.
In Wheaton-based Community Unit School District 200, which oversees 20 elementary and high schools for nearly 12,000 students who also come from Warrenville, Winfield, Carol Stream and West Chicago, a four-person conservative slate lost to a more loosely affiliated and politically diverse group that included two incumbents and had the backing of the local teachers union.
The conservative Parents for CUSD200 Children slate reported spending nearly $34,000 from January through March, with nearly two-thirds of that total spent on campaign mailers and postage, state records show. The group spent nearly $5,7000 on the green yard signs that led to it becoming known locally as the “green slate.”
The winning candidates — incumbents Dave Long and Julie Kulovits and newcomers Erik Hjerpe and John Rutledge — did not campaign or fundraise together.
None of the four met the $5,000 threshold of contributions or expenditures that triggers requirements to file disclosures with state election officials. Kulovits, who received the most votes among seven candidates vying for three four-year seats on the board, voluntarily reported raising just over $3,500 and spending about $3,350, mostly on social media advertising.
The state Democratic Party didn’t get involved in the Wheaton race, and the local teachers union, the Wheaton Warrenville Education Association, which endorsed Kulovits and three other winning candidates, spent just under $2,400 from January through March.
Democrats did wade into the school board race in Barrington, spending about $1,800 on digital ads backing incumbents Leah Collister-Lazzari and Barry Altshuler, records show. Unofficial results show Collister-Lazzari and Altshuler were reelected, with newcomer Diana Clopton winning the other seat.
Overall, the Democratic Party of Illinois reported spending nearly $180,000 on campaign mailers and another $80,000 on digital advertising, the financial reports showed.
State campaign finance disclosures don’t make clear how much the state party spent in individual races on mailers that labeled conservative candidates “extremist.” Buoyed by a $500,000 contribution from billionaire Gov. J.B. Pritzker earlier this year, the Democrats focused much of their effort in these ostensibly nonpartisan elections on calling attention to candidates they considered to be on the far right of the political spectrum.
In Barrington Community Unit School District 220, three conservatives ran under the banner of Action PAC, a suburban political action committee with GOP ties that also supported candidates for the Barrington village and library boards.
The PAC — whose contributors included former Illinois GOP governor candidate Gary Rabine, as well as the leader of the Lake County chapter of the right-wing group Moms for Liberty and video gambling company Gold Rush Amusements — reported spending more than $36,000 in the first three months of the year, about one-third of that on “campaign work.”
Of the seven people the PAC supported only one, library board candidate Kristin Cunningham, appears to have won, according to unofficial results.
The PAC’s three school board candidates also benefited from outside spending from the New York-based 1776 Project PAC, which has ties to ultraconservative Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein of the Uline packaging supplies company.
The group, which backs school board candidates who support teaching “patriotism and pride in American history” and oppose the teaching of critical race theory, spent more than $2,250 on mailers endorsing three unsuccessful conservative candidates in Barrington.
In a blog post on its website immediately after the election, Action PAC said the results showed “what happens when the most powerful people and organizations in the state of Illinois work together to wrest control of the schools, libraries and local offices from the parents and taxpayers.”
Conservatives weren’t shut out everywhere they outspent opponents, however.
In northwest suburban Huntley Community School District 158, all four available seats were won by candidates on the right who were backed by a newly formed PAC called McHenry County Citizens for Lower Taxes. The committee, which was closed last week, was seeded with $15,000 from the campaign fund of unsuccessful GOP congressional candidate Catalina Lauf of Woodstock and spent the entire amount.
Democrats spent nearly $3,800 backing two of the unsuccessful candidates in the race, and it’s unclear how much the party spent on negative ads targeting the apparent winners.
There also were races where Democrats and teachers unions outspent the conservative candidates en route to victory.
In Cook County, the Illinois Education Association spent more than $19,000 to support the local teachers union’s three favored candidates for the board in Lyons Township High School District 204, which serves nearly 4,000 students from La Grange, Western Springs and surrounding west suburbs.
The state Democratic Party kicked in about $4,300 more on behalf of the same candidates, Timothy Albores, Jill Beda Daniels and Kari Dillon, all of whom won, according to unofficial results. The Democrats also paid for ads opposing three of the losing candidates in the seven-person race.
The winners also were backed by a newly formed political action committee called Support Our Schools. The PAC, which has ties to Democratic lawyer and lobbyist Heather Wier Vaught, who in the past has represented indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, reported receiving $20,000 in contributions but as of Tuesday afternoon had not reported its expenditures for the first quarter.
Separately, Daniels reported spending about $4,300 supporting her candidacy in the first quarter, while Albores reported spending nearly $4,000, records show.
On the losing side, candidates David Herndon, Timothy Vlcek and Frank Evans received outside support from the People Who Play By the Rules PAC, run by right-wing radio host Dan Proft of Naples, Florida, and funded largely by Uihlein. The PAC spent more than $3,700 on mailers supporting the trio, none of whom reported any expenditures of their own.
One group that had little to no financial impact on the race was Awake Illinois, the far-right group that endorsed more than 100 candidates in races across the state, the vast majority of whom were unsuccessful.
Awake Illinois’ PAC reported raising just under $1,700 from January through March and spent less than $100, records show.