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Why Chung vs. Preston became one of the most expensive campaigns Bloomington-Normal has ever seen

Democrat Sharon Chung and Republican Scott Preston (and the people who back them) have together spent more than $1 million already to win the 91st, which is one of only five open seats (no incumbent) out of 118 in the Illinois House. Bloomington-Normal hasn’t seen an Illinois House race this competitive or costly in modern history.
Ryan Denham
Democrat Sharon Chung and Republican Scott Preston (and the people who back them) have together spent more than $1 million already to win the 91st District, which is one of only five open seats (no incumbent) out of 118 in the Illinois House. Bloomington-Normal hasn’t seen an Illinois House race this competitive or costly in modern history.

“Sharon Chung and her friends are bad for Illinois.”

“Scott Preston and his campaign supporters are too extreme for us.”

Those lines have been repeated again and again in the barrage of campaign fliers that have filled Bloomington-Normal mailboxes in recent weeks. Chung and Preston are running for Illinois’ new 91st House District that includes much of Bloomington-Normal, stretching along Interstate 74 to East Peoria.

While Chung and Preston have their own records to run on as local elected officials, the company they keep has become an easy target during the campaign. And it’s a big target. Chung and Preston (and the people who back them) have together spent more than $1 million already to win the 91st, which is one of only five open seats (no incumbent) out of 118 in the Illinois House.

Bloomington-Normal hasn’t seen an Illinois House race this competitive or costly in modern history.

This is the first year of Illinois’ new political maps, drawn during the post-census redistricting. Democrats drew the map to give themselves a chance of winning the 91st.

“As a result, communities like yours that don’t often get races that get attention, you get to actually play in the game a little bit,” said Collin Corbett with Cor Strategies, a center-right political consulting firm based in Inverness (near Chicago) that’s worked in Bloomington-Normal.

By any measure of past Bloomington-Normal House races, Chung vs. Preston has been expensive.

In 2018, when Democrat Ben Webb ran unsuccessfully against Republican state Rep. Dan Brady, Webb spent about $16,000, state election records show. That same year, Democrat Jill Blair lost her race against Republican state Rep. Keith Sommer. She spent about $63,000, records show.

Chung’s campaign spent $614,668 through Sept. 30, plus another $244,888 in “in kind” support from the Democratic Party, its House campaign committee, and Speaker Chris Welch, election records show.

“Somebody told me when I was seriously considering running for this race, they said I’d have to strap in and go along for the ride,” Chung told WGLT this week. “I wish they’d told me I’d need one of those five-point harnesses like people wear when they go skydiving.”

What’s at stake

President Biden won the 91st District by seven points. If Chung were to win, it would be the first time a Democrat represented Bloomington-Normal in the House since 1982.

There are statewide implications, too. Democrats currently have a veto-proof supermajority in the Illinois House. Republicans need to pick up three seats to end that.

“That’s the magic number to make sure we’re able to provide a better check and balance against Democrats in Springfield,” said state Rep. Ryan Spain of Peoria, chairman of the House Republican Majority campaign committee, that’s contributed at least $85,000 to Preston’s campaign through in-kind support like campaign staff, polling, printing and mailing.

Republicans are paying close attention to the 91st, in part, because it’s an open seat and a new geography that we’ve never seen before, Spain said.

“This is one of the most important races in the state,” Spain said. “The greediness of Democratic gerrymandering has created opportunities. And this seat may be the best example in the entire state of Illinois, of the Democrats trying to draw themselves a new legislative district, and they’re going to be disappointed in the outcome.”

It takes around $300,000 to $500,000 to run a viable downstate campaign in a top-target “Tier 1” race, said Corbett, the consultant.

“Even though it’s downstate, it’s a decently populated area. The media market is not cheap,” he said.

Democrats have the money to defend the map they drew. Chung has significantly outraised Preston and has received more party-level support, too. She has three times as much cash on hand as Preston ($165,000 to $59,000) heading into the final weeks of the campaign, records show.

One of Chung’s biggest supporters is Democrats for the Illinois House, the party’s official campaign arm that has given $270,000 in money and support. That includes all those mailers, touting Chung’s support for reproductive rights and claiming that women can’t trust Preston and “his extreme MAGA Allies.” (Preston has said he’s “pro-life,” with the exception in the case of rape and incest as well as when a mother’s life may be threatened). Democrats for the Illinois House, in turn, got the bulk of its recent money from Gov. JB Pritzker’s campaign fund.

“I know who the people are who are funding my campaign,” Chung said. “I’ve been proud of a lot of the things that Democrats have done, in terms of getting our state’s finances turned around. We’ve had six credit upgrades. We’ve balanced the budget. We’ve paid back our bill backlog. I think the Democrats that are in office right now really do have the best interest of the people of Illinois at hand, and I’m excited to hopefully be joining them.”

91st district candidate for State Representative Sharon Chung introduced Illinois Governor JB Pritzker at a downtown Bloomington rally Thursday.
Charlie Schlenker
Democratic House candidate Sharon Chung introduced Gov. JB Pritzker at a downtown Bloomington rally in September.

McLean County certainly has the attention of prominent Democrats like Pritzker. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin endorsed Chung even before the primary. Speaker Welch will speak Friday at the McLean County Democrats’ Obama Legacy Dinner and will certainly be stumping for Chung, currently a McLean County Board member.

"This is one of the most exciting transformations in a county that we have seen in many years. McLean County is a Democratic county," Pritzker said during a recent stop in Bloomington, alongside Chung.

That’s a bit aspirational. Republicans currently hold every countywide office and all of the county’s seats in the legislature and Congress.

But a purpling of the county may explain the unusually high volume of campaign mailers hitting voters in the 91st District.

Another reason: Mail is really effective, according to Nick Daggers, partner at 1833 Group, a Chicago-based Democratic fundraising consulting firm. That’s despite a limited impact window — basically how much time it takes someone to walk from the mailbox to the trash can.

“With mail, you can get really targeted and very specific messages to certain voters,” Daggers said. “But you need to do something really special to stand out.”

For Preston, his mail message has been two-pronged. Pitch himself as a business-minded conservative who will cut taxes and stop wasteful government spending. And attack “Chung’s top donors” for, among other things, passing a criminal justice reform law that is “releasing violent criminals from jail without having to post bail.” Chung says the SAFE-T Act is "smart on crime" and that critics are fear mongering.

Preston serves on the Normal Town Council. He was first elected in 2013, then becoming the youngest council member in Normal history. He did not make himself available for an interview for this story.

“For a young leader in the community, Scott has a lot of experience under his belt. We really need that,” Spain said. “Scott really rose to the top of the (candidate) list immediately.”

Pendulum swings quickly

TBD, of course, is how national and statewide political forces will influence voters. Six months ago, it seemed a Republican wave was coming, then Democrats picked up some momentum, and then it flipped back again, said Corbett, the political consultant.

“What you’re seeing play out in front of you there is actually the headache that both Democrats and Republicans are running into statewide, which is that the landscape keeps shifting underneath them. For a lot of them, it’s been the toughest election cycle — at least that I can remember — in the 16 years I’ve been doing this,” Corbett said.

Daggers, the other political consultant, said he thinks “you’re gonna see a lot of ticket splitting in Bloomington-Normal, with Democrats casting ballots quietly for Dan Brady,” the moderate Republican running for Illinois secretary of state.

Scott Preston gestures
Emily Bollinger
Republican Scott Preston, seen here at WGLT's debate last month, is currently serving on the Normal Town Council.

“But I also think you’re gonna see pretty partisan turnout on both sides,” Daggers said. “It looks like the enthusiasm gap is leaning slightly toward the Democrats right now. But as we’ve seen throughout this cycle, that’s a pendulum that swings awfully quick.”

As that pendulum swings, Chung and Preston have not just been relying on TV ads and mailers. Chung, a working mother, said she’s gone through three pairs of shoes walking neighborhoods this year. By late September, Chung said she had personally knocked on more than 8,000 doors in the district.

“I feel like I won (the County Board seat) in 2018 because I just did a lot of voter contact and talked to a lot of people. We’re just doing that again, just on a larger scale this time around,” Chung said.

Because of that work, Democrats’ confidence level is high they’ll win the seat, said state Rep. Maurice West, the Democratic State Central Committeeman for this area.

“It’s happened before, where we’ve invested in districts, but the candidate didn’t do the work or left some stones unturned. Sharon’s not doing that,” West said. “She’s capitalizing on every minute of every day. She makes it easy for us to be comfortable with the fact that we’ll have a return on investment that we put into the 91st, because she’s doing the work.”

Preston and his wife welcomed their first baby between the primary and Election Day.

“There’s no sleep in a variety of ways in the Preston household,” Spain said. “When you have candidates that are working hard, it takes a race you were interested in and just amplifies it.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.