John Shimkus raised $2.1 million for his congressional re-election campaign last year, even though he was an eight-term incumbent running in an overwhelmingly Republican district against a Democrat candidate who ran a virtually invisible campaign, spent just over $10,000 and, according to the Wall Street Journal, had voted Republican for years.
Shimkus defeated Angela Michael, 69 percent to 31 percent, in the new 15th Congressional District that takes in a large chunk of East Central Illinois, including Danville. And he "spent" almost $2.4 million doing it.
It's the story of how a well-entrenched congressman can use the benefits of incumbency and his committee assignment to raise large sums of money, scare off potential opponents and help his political allies.
It's all legal, of course. It's just politics.
His latest filing with the Federal Election Commission says that Shimkus disbursed $2.38 million running for re-election last year. But many of those expenditures were unrelated to his campaign.
Shimkus gave at least $925,000 to other Republican candidates and party organizations over the last two years, including $500,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee and nearly $250,000 to the once-needy Illinois Republican Party. At one point in 2011, the state party had only $1,691 on hand. Thanks to Shimkus and other GOP supporters, it now has about $573,000.
Shimkus also backed dozens of other Republican candidates in groups, from the $250 he gave to Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten to the $25,000 he gave to both state Senate candidate Pat Sullivan in Peoria and state representative candidate Glen Nixon in Kankakee. Both of them lost.
Unlike retired U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, who said he hated political fundraising, Shimkus seems to thrive on it, and he defends it.
"Why do we continue to raise money? With a bigger district now, just running a maintenance campaign, just doing a couple of newspaper ads, local radio and having a couple of people on the campaign payroll — because I don't want people to think that my official staff is doing that work — that's going to run you $250,000 to $450,000, just to let you know that I want to get re-elected.
"And if you have a top-tier race — and you just saw what a top-tier race can do (in reference to the Rodney Davis-David Gill race in the 13th Congressional District that attracted nearly $7 million in "outside" spending) — if you fall into having a top-tier race, then you want to start with a head start. And people, millionaires, can write whatever money they want. And to take on what your opponent may have in the future you want to have a pretty good balance on hand."
Shimkus, however, has never taken on a millionaire opponent and he hasn't faced an opponent who raised more than a million dollars since he defeated another incumbent congressman, David Phelps, in 2002. In that election, Shimkus outspent Phelps by about $860,000.
And while Shimkus did spend $21,158 on newspaper ads in the last two years, and $4,047 on radio spots, those expenses were dwarfed by spending for fundraising, meetings and dinners at two Capitol Hill locations: $162,616 at the Capital Grille in Washington, and $41,575 at the Capitol Hill Club, a private social club for Republicans.
He is a veritable political ATM, raising more than $12 million in federally reported funds in his political career, according to the website OpenSecrets.org, and distributing it to other Republicans and groups.
"We like to keep a fairly good balance (there already is $860,000 in his treasury for whoever wants to try to beat him in 2014), but we use it for Republican activities and for the Get Out The Vote efforts, trying to help what I can do with other members of Congress. I did the max to Rodney (Davis). I helped the state party do their programs and their phone banks. It's all a part of being on the team. If you believe in political activities and you believe in your party — and ours is a pretty wide party — you're there to help your teammates. On the whole conservatives are going to try to approach national policy through a conservative lens which is less government, individual responsibility, lower taxes, more personal freedoms and liberties. I want more of those people on the team versus on the other."
The other half of the story, though, is where all that money comes from. In Shimkus' case much of it from groups and associations that appear before his committee, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as the Environment and the Economy Subcommittee that he chairs.
According to OpenSecrets.org, Shimkus' top five donors (including both political action committees and individuals) were Murray Energy (an Ohio-based coal company), Exelon (the Chicago-based power producer), the National Association of Broadcasters, Abbott Laboratories (the North Chicago-based pharmaceuticals company) and Ameren (the St. Louis-based electric and gas utility). All are among companies whose business is overseen by the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Further, the top five industries giving to Shimkus over the last two years were: health professionals (a total of $192,600); pharmaceuticals/health care, $142,300; electric utilities, $135,500; oil and gas, $115,500; and mining, $79,659.
Shimkus makes no apologies for accepting PAC money (76 percent of all his contributions in the last election cycle) or money from groups that appear before his committee.
"I think people kind of lose track of what PACs are. We're not like Illinois. We don't take corporate dollars. PACs are really funds that individual employees of that company give to the PAC and then the PAC board decides to give it out," he said. "So let's talk about Exelon and the Clinton (nuclear plant owned by Exelon). They would appeal to the employees to support the PAC and then they would support the folks who are supporting the PAC on their issues. So as you know I support nuclear power. I support the jobs there. I'm trying to get rid of the (nuclear) waste so they're saying, 'Good job, keep it up.'
"Politicians are always attacked for the money they receive. You all write about it and our opponents will attack us for it, and we'll let the public decide."
Douglas County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner. Douglas County Republicans will hold their annual Lincoln Day Dinner at 6 p.m. Feb. 12 featuring state Treasurer (and potential gubernatorial candidate) Dan Rutherford as the keynote speaker. The event will be held at Yoder's Country Kitchen in Arthur. Tickets are $20 and can be reserved and paid for at the door by calling 578-3298.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.