TAYLORVILLE, Ill. (WCIA) -- The 2018 election is still five months away, but yard signs, political mailers and paid television ads are already starting to show up in some contested statehouse races.
"In the senate, I refused a pension, said 'no budget, no pay,' and I'm working to freeze property taxes," State Senator Andy Manar says in his first TV ad, in an appeal to fiscally conservative voters.
In the race for the 48th Senate district, the two-term incumbent Democrat is in for a bruising battle with Republican challenger Seth McMillan, a landscaper and scrappy political operative with a flare for instigating political fights. Strapped for cash, McMillan is banking on a conservative district map to bail him out.
"It is very telling that [Manar] went up on TV as early as he did," McMillan said Wednesday from his Taylorville campaign headquarters. "I think that he is worried. He knows that he is in a district that leans Republican and that is much more conservative than what his voting record is."
"I don’t view my role in elective office as summing up the politics of individual voters," Manar responded from one of his newly leased staff offices in Taylorville, which sits just around the block from McMillan's a few blocks from the town square. "My job is to serve Democrats and Republicans equally."
In a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday, McMillan targeted Manar's voting record in favor of taxpayer funded abortion, protections for immigrants enshrined in the Trust Act, and a measure to add LGBT history in public schools.
"The issue that I hear over and over again in some parts of the district are the issues of protecting life," McMillan said. "Andy Manar said he was pro life in 2013, yet voted for HB40 to expand abortion. Those are issues that are important to people in some parts of the district. He also voted for a school curriculum bill that would mandate LGBT curriculum in public schools. That is another issue that I have heard about at doors, especially in the southern part of this district."
"I believe he takes a provocative approach to government," Manar replied. "He does not view the role of an elected official as being a unifier. He views the role of an elected official as being a divider. That is a page from Governor Rauner’s playbook that we have seen over and over again over the last four years."
McMillan was not the first choice of the state party, but after a number of other more experienced candidates declined to oppose Manar, McMillan threw his hat into the ring.
"Mr. McMillan was the gentleman that Governor Rauner called," Manar taunted. "He answered the phone. He is a recruit and a disciple of Bruce Rauner. That’s what I think his goal is in this race, to divide up the district and to approach this election through division."
McMillan denies the governor recruited him for the race.
"I’m just a guy out knocking on doors, putting up signs," McMillan said. "I don’t have a staff the size of his. I certainly don’t have a warchest the size of his."
If McMillan hopes to unseat the incumbent, who is well known in the district for delivering a historic win for underfunded public schools, he'll have to raise a boatload of cash. Currently, McMillan's campaign fund has just $6,398.60, compared to Manar's $585,757.84 cash on hand.
Manar, who has eight campaign staffers working in five offices stretching from Macon to Madison county, says his opponent's poor fundraising totals are an indictment of his reputation as a political flamethrower in the community.
"I think all you would have to do is walk down the street here in Taylorville and ask a few people. His reputation here in Christian County is being very divisive. He hasn’t raised any money here locally. I think that is evidence of that divisive nature and his divisive reputation."
As Christian County GOP chair, McMillan has ruffled the feathers of some in his own party, including fellow Taylorville native Rodney Davis, the Republican Congressman who represents the state's 13th district. McMillan blasted Davis as "out of touch" with the GOP during a heated moment in the aftermath of the Access Hollywood tapes that supercharged the 2016 presidential election. Now, McMillan is attempting to mend fences with local party leaders as he seeks allies and access to their top donors. Davis' campaign was not interested in relitigating the past tiff with the county party chairman, and said the Congressman is backing McMillan in his race. They would not say, however, if Davis will campaign with him or publicly announce an endorsement.
According to a source familiar with Manar's internal polling, Manar briefly entertained challenging Davis' for his spot in Congress last summer, but instead opted to run for re-election to his third term in the General Assembly.
Manar and McMillan differ on two other issues that split the statehouse for the last several years: school funding and the state budget.
"I definitely would have" voted against the 2018 fiscal year budget, McMillan said. The controversial vote, which raised the state income tax to 4.95 percent, was backed by 15 Republicans in the House and one in the Senate. The first budget in more than two years passed with exactly enough votes in both chambers.
Would McMillan's opposition have prolonged the budget impasse?
"Maybe, maybe not," he said. "We don’t know what would have happened if that, if all sides had negotiated in good faith. Maybe something better would have came (sic) of that."
In contrast, Manar chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee that crafted each line item in the budget, and worked as a budget negotiator to put the spending plan together. McMillan says that position makes his opponent an "entrenched insider."
In the same year, Manar scored a political victory that was heralded by prominent members of both parties, including Governor Rauner, as a historic reversal of the most inequitable school funding formula in the country. McMillan dismissed that wholly as a "$300 million bailout for Chicago."
"He has been responsible for a lot of the mayhem that we have had in the state of Illinois," McMillan said about his opponent, refusing to give him any credit for the new school funding formula. "He has been behind the prorated state general state aid payments where schools lost millions of dollars over a period of four or five years."
"I was on the Taylorville school board during that time and we had to make some very tough decisions, closing buildings, laying off teachers, just liked a lot of districts did in this Senate District. He was behind that."
Manar was not a voting member of the legislature at the time proration began, but was on staff working for Senate President John Cullerton. He remembers the episode very differently.
"As a school board member, [McMillan] asked me as a Senator to go to Springfield and fix the mess of school funding," Manar said. "So now that he is the party chairman, leading with politics, he has coupled that with being a candidate for the state senate. He has forgotten about that conversation. That tells me he has put partisanship above kids -- and kids not just in the 48th district but kids all across Illinois -- that have been short changed because of partisan bickering. That is the type of thing that prevented us for five years, even though we got the job done, that pushed us back. It was the partisan bickering."
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