04/12/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2014

Cross, Frerichs Treasurer Contest Cues Up Fierce Clash

Both the rhetoric and the tactics are heating up in race for State Treasurer, which other than the Governor's race, offers the most potential for drama in Illinois' 2014 campaign season.

While this race may not feature stark ideological differences on social issues, former House GOP Minority Leader Tom Cross and State Sen. Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) are two well-established pols who are eager to move up and who both have enough political history to make opposition researchers gleeful.

Cross recently went on the offensive after the Governor Pat Quinn's budget address, pinning Frerichs to Quinn's attempt at "doubling down" on the permanent extension of the 2011 income tax hike and generally laying the entire sorry state of the Illinois budget on the "Quinn/Frerichs" leadership of Illinois.

Frerichs' camp counters that Cross is attempting to persuade voters to forget that the former House Minority Leader participated in crafting multiple inflated budgets built on questionable gimmicks over the years. The senator is liberally using the word "hypocrite" to define Cross.

Cross' camp blames Frerichs for the early negative campaign tone, saying that he used his victory speech on primary night to attack Cross for "consistently siding with wealthy and powerful interests in Springfield" and for saying that Cross has "little regard for the middle class."

The early and angry public rhetoric between the Cross and Frerichs camps is undoubtedly the result of a tight race.

The Cross campaign recently released poll results that reveal Cross leading Frerichs 34-30 percent, a lead within the margin of error.

The survey, conducted by GS Strategy Group, found Cross, who is both pro-choice and a supporter of same sex marriage, grabbing an astonishing 21 percent of the vote in Chicago.

That poll, taken March 6 and 7, had an error margin of plus or minus 4.8 percent.

A source in Frerichs' campaign said that its own poll yielded a similar result - essentially a tied race.

But while the public war of words over economic issues is following predictable partisan talking points, an inside source is saying the real drama is heating up behind the scenes.

Frerichs' campaign is reportedly angry that Cross staffers have begun issuing Freedom of Information Requests not only looking for information on Frerichs, but extending their requests to family members in government, including two of Frerichs' brothers who are non-classroom, blue-collar employees at the University of Illinois at Champaign.

It is common for opposition researchers to review candidate family members and to tar their opponent with any problematic information. But Frerichs reportedly was unhappy to hear to the news that his family was already being dragged into the fray.

In addition to the FOIA's, Cross' team is considering rehashing an attack line from Frerichs' 2012 campaign for reelection in which his opponent claimed that Frerichs' family moved their trucking business out of state. The business is owned by a distant cousin and the charge is a stretch, but voters often fail to look past the first couple of lines of an attack ad. Frerichs cruised to victory in 2012, but Cross may still think the issue has traction when properly amplified.

The Cross campaign is, however, making it clear that its opposition research operation will avoid any "dumpster diving," saying it will steer clear of any probe of Frerichs' recent divorce settlement.

Frerichs' campaign got off to a rough start when his announcement video featured him touting that he "voted to end free health care for legislators", a measure he actually voted against. But early mistakes are better than late ones, and it is doubtful that it will wound him fatally in the long run.

Still, Frerichs recognizes that he is largely undefined statewide.

"No body knows who the hell we are," said a Frerichs campaign source citing polling data. "An no one knows who Cross is either."

Meanwhile, the Frerichs operation is comfortable with their financial position.

At the end of the fourth quarter, Frerichs reported a significant money advantage over Cross with $800,000 in the bank to Cross' $388,000. And on Tuesday, Frerichs, who had no primary opponent, announced that he had raised $387,000 in the first quarter of 2014 and that he ended with $1,082,000 on hand.

In the first quarter, Cross raised $147,988 in large contributions for his treasurer account and $22,000 for his legislative campaign committee. But he faced a primary opponent and spent nearly $150,000 on broadcast ads, according to one estimate from an ad tracker.

What's next?

Trying to determine the moment when to pull the trigger on advertising to define the candidate and the opponent is the most important question for a campaign. A million dollars is a lot of dough, but that's just a few weeks of a solid TV buy in the Chicago media market.

Still, a pile of unused cash does little for a candidate's poll numbers.

Spend early? Spend late?

That's a key decision that awaits Frerichs.

For observers, only the unfolding campaign drama between Cross and Frerichs awaits.

David also edits, with the help of Capitol Fax's Rich Miller,
The Illinois Observer: The Insider, in which this article first appeared.