By Will Connors

CHICAGO -- A surge in campaign spending has filtered down to one of the more obscure races here, making the normally innocuous battle for comptroller among the most expensive campaigns ever for a state office in Illinois.

The winner gets the pleasure of writing checks in a state that is almost $10 billion in the hole and muddling through the worst budget crisis in its history. The previous comptroller, who died shortly after winning election in 2014, compared the job to being "a skunk at a picnic."

Despite the apparent lack of appeal for what is essentially a clerical role, more than $10 million sits in the coffers of the two candidates, Republican incumbent Leslie Munger and Democratic challenger Susana Mendoza. That is a record for the office in Illinois -- and makes it one of the most expensive comptroller races ever in any state.

The race is widely considered a proxy battle between GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and the speaker of the state House, Democrat Mike Madigan. They have been locked in a bitter legislative dispute since Mr. Rauner's election in 2014, leaving the state for the first time without a budget for two years in a row.

Given the budget crisis, Gov. Rauner wants to keep the office in Republican control, analysts say.

"Munger is his appointment, so [Gov. Rauner] probably wants to protect her," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "I think he'd rather have a Republican in there."

Aside from a salary of $135,669, the job doesn't come with many fancy perks. But the comptroller does decide who gets paid and when.

Earlier this year, as the budget crisis dragged on, Ms. Munger delayed giving paychecks to state lawmakers in favor of paying other bills. She said she hadn't consulted Gov. Rauner or anyone else about the move.

Since March, Ms. Munger, 60, a former cosmetics industry executive, has raised more than $9 million, while the 44-year-old Ms. Mendoza, a former state representative and current Chicago city clerk, has raised more than $2.5 million.

"It's definitely unprecedented," said Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group advocating for campaign finance changes.

The frenetic fundraising is also notable because whoever wins will serve for only the two years remaining on the term of Judy Baar Topinka, who died in late 2014.

After Mr. Rauner appointed Ms. Munger to the job, the legislature pushed for a special election.

The comptroller race isn't the only Illinois campaign to see a significant uptick in spending, and it reflects increases in campaign funding across the country. The Illinois U.S. Senate race between Mark Kirk and Tammy Duckworth is among the most expensive nationwide.

Last month, the Center for Public Integrity reported that TV ad spending on state races in Illinois had reached $14 million, the highest in the country. Some of the money given to the comptroller candidates has been shifted to other campaigns in Illinois, which is legal under a law passed by the Democratically controlled legislature a few years ago.

"From my standpoint it is crazy," said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, who noted that the next highest total in a comptroller race was $2.39 million in 2002.

The campaign has featured wall-to-wall attack ads and dramatics more often seen in Senate or presidential contests.

There was even a high-profile gaffe. At several campaign events Ms. Munger implied that the state budget mess was in part due to the poor math skills of Ms. Mendoza. But during a state fair in August, Ms. Munger was asked to solve three simple multiplication problems. She got one of three right. Ms. Mendoza answered all three correctly.

Turbocharging the fundraising is the battle between the wealthy governor and Rep. Madigan, the House speaker. They have been locked in a bitter legislative dispute since Mr. Rauner's election in 2014, leaving the state for the first time without a budget for two years in a row.

Mr. Rauner has personally given Ms. Munger's campaign $2 million, including $1 million on Monday, and two wealthy allies of the governor, Kenneth Griffin and Richard Uihlein, together donated more than $7 million.

A spokesman for the governor said that, "While Comptroller Munger has repeatedly proven to be an independent officeholder, SusanaMendoza is Mike Madigan's handpicked candidate. Mendoza has taken hundreds of thousands from Madigan's party funds, labor unions and other special interests that are impacted by the Comptroller's decisions."

Ms. Mendoza has received donations of more than six figures from the Democratic Party of Illinois, which is controlled by Mr. Madigan, and several unions.

A representative for Mr. Griffin declined to comment. A representative for Mr. Uihlein didn't respond to a request for comment.

"Obviously it is obscene the amount of money being put into the race," Ms. Mendoza said in an interview, conceding that she too has had to raise a significant amount. "That's what I've had to raise just knowing that the onslaught of money was going to pour into [my opponent's] campaign."

Phillip Rodriguez, Ms. Munger's campaign manager, said that "Leslie is doing everything she can to get her message to voters...Her opponent has raised nearly all of her money from special interests and she voted for the campaign finance laws that allow for large contributions. Leslie is simply following those laws and every contribution she has taken is completely transparent."

The tense rhetoric continued last week at the campaign's only televised debate. Ms. Mendoza called Ms. Munger the state's "chief fiscal launderer," in reference to her campaign shifting million of dollars in donations to other Republican groups.

Ms. Munger said she wasn't beholden to those who donated.

"Everything I've done has been completely transparent and completely legal," Ms Munger said. "The governor has not bought me. In fact I'm the most independent person here. My opponent has actually received plenty of money from special interests herself."

After all the campaign fireworks and the staggering amounts of money being spent on the race, the job is still an obscure one. Ms. Mendoza says the No. 1 question she gets on the campaign trail is: "What is a comptroller?"

Write to Will Connors at william.connors@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 05, 2016 11:14 ET (15:14 GMT)

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