McHenry County races see more activity, interest this election cycle

New political committees, as well as longstanding organizations, are finding ways to get the vote out for their respective candidates

Voting machines are set up on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, inside the McHenry County Administration Building in Woodstock. Early voting starts on Feb. 23 for the April 4 consolidated election.

Quality of education, concerns about taxes, parents needing a voice and concerns about “fringe candidates.”

As the April 4 consolidated election approaches, contested races for a seat on local school, library and municipal bodies have been receiving more attention than previous years, some observers said. As political groups and committees push for specific candidates and work against others, a number of races are hinging on socially charged issues.

The same holds true in McHenry County.

While the Democratic Party of McHenry County has “always been active” in local elections, more people have been interested in running or volunteering in races this year, Chair Kristina Zahorik said.

“I would say that this cycle with the number of fringe candidates has increased the number of people interested in the races and in helping to get out the vote,” Zahorik said.

The Democratic Party of Illinois, according to its website, is ramping up its attention on local races, too. Last week, it announced a $300,000 statewide electorate program to support certain candidates and inform voters of who’s on the ballot. A website titled “Defend Our Schools Illinois,” paid for by the party, lambasts “extremist conservatives” who are supporting “harmful measures.”

McHenry County Republican Chair Jeff Thorsen, meanwhile, said that from his party’s perspective this has been a typical year, calling it “business as usual.”

In recent years, Thorsen said, he’s seen parties get more involved in local races. But the money coming in across the state this year is “unprecedented and concerning,” he said.

“I was involved in municipal non-partisan elections ... before 2015 and during that time the parties stayed out of them,” Thorsen said. “Apparently, those days are behind us.”

Illinois GOP Chairman Don Tracy in a Feb. 24 memo said school and library board races across the state are more important than ever “due to the left’s infiltration of our schools.” He lamented the Republican Party’s inability to fund at the same clip as the Democrats, but pointed to various tools and groups to help close that gap.

One of those groups he mentioned was the national 1776 Project PAC, which is endorsing three school board candidates in Barrington. The committee’s goal is to “reform our public education system by promoting patriotism and pride,” and “abolishing critical race theory,” according to its website.

To say there’s more interest in local races than there has been isn’t saying much. Local races have historically been complete snooze fests in the United States.

—  Chris Mooney, political science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago

The increase in activity is happening at all levels of government, as national players get involved in even the most local of races, said Chris Mooney, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

It’s being driven by perceived grievances on each side of the aisle, particularly in terms of social concerns, he said.

“To say there’s more interest in local races than there has been isn’t saying much,” Mooney said. “Local races have historically been complete snooze fests in the United States.”

As of the end of Monday, McHenry County had seen 1,570 ballots cast through early voting and it had received 6,972 vote by mail ballots of 27,685 requested, County Clerk Joe Tirio said. At the same time in 2021, with a week to go before the election, there had been 3,006 early voting ballots cast and 610 mail ballots returned out of 734 requested.

Political action committees in the area, both old and new, also vary in their activity. Some of their concerns include fiscal responsibility and worries over the quality of education in schools.

The McHenry County Citizens for Lower Taxes political action committee was created in January by Thomas Datwyler, an out-of-state campaign treasurer. He has worked with many prominent national Republicans including U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and 2022 U.S. House candidate Catalina Lauf.

The committee describes itself as “a group of McHenry County residents” who “love our community, but we have become increasingly concerned with rising taxes and where our dollars are going,” according to its website.

Lauf in early March contributed $15,000 to the committee, according to state election records. It is the only contribution the committee has reported as of Tuesday.

Currently, the group has endorsed four candidates so far, all of whom are challengers for the Huntley School District 158 school board. They are Andrew Bittman, Laura Murray, Gina Galligar and Michael Thompson.

Each candidate in the past has either clamored for more fiscal responsibility or said they feel the district’s quality of education has declined in lieu of an agenda-driven focus.

The committee said in an email last week it recently donated to the candidates and will comply with state requirements for reporting those expenses.

However, those requirements may not mean reporting those amounts before the election next week, Illinois State Board of Elections spokesperson Matt Dietrich said.

We are a group of active McHenry County residents. ... We love our community, but we have become increasingly concerned with rising taxes and where our dollars are going – especially for those of us living on fixed incomes.

—  McHenry County Citizens for Lower Taxes on its website

While campaign contributions totaling more than $1,000 are required to be reported within two days when the election is 30 days out, anything under that is not. Instead, it’s included in a quarterly report, which in this case, won’t be due until after the election, Dietrich said.

Because of the size of the races, even with increased interest, there’s a good chance most candidates won’t receive enough money per contribution to require them to report it more quickly, Dietrich said.

The McHenry County Citizens for Lower Taxes group did not respond to follow-up emails regarding how much it plans to give to each candidate it endorsed. As of Tuesday, the committee has no reported expenses.

Other committees, such as the Barrington Action PAC, have been active for a few years. This year, the committee is supporting seven candidates across the area’s school, library and village boards, three of which are the same as the 1776 Project PAC. The Action PAC is focused on “the concerns of taxpayers, citizens, and parents,” according to its website.

One of the committee’s school board candidates, Leonard Munson, who also was endorsed by the 1776 Project PAC, said he and others became more active in local races following the COVID-19 pandemic. He said without the committee, he doesn’t feel like he could run a campaign by himself given all the time commitments he has.

Contribution reports show the committee has raised more than $50,000 since the day after the November 2022 election. Originally created in 2020, all contributions before last year’s election totaled nearly $32,000.

“I think people miss that the money is helping seven people,” Munson said. “It’s not like it’s for one person.”

The committee has reported no direct donations to candidates as of Tuesday, but is active on social media and pushing people to vote.

While McHenry County GOPAC hosted a controversial event in April focused on education and featuring political commentator Charlie Kirk, it hasn’t weighed in local school board races financially, according to available campaign records.

Attempts to reach Committee Chair Karen Tirio on Tuesday were not successful.

While there is an argument to be made that any increased activity is good since it shows people getting involved, the nature of the issues are dividing, which in themselves are causing problems, Mooney said.

“We’re just seeing people scream at each other,” Mooney said. “That doesn’t do anything except make more people angry.”