LINCOLN, Ill. — Darren Bailey, the Republican primary frontrunner for Illinois governor, was finishing his stump speech last week at a senior center in this central Illinois town when a voice shouted “Can we pray for you? ”
Mr. Bailey easily agreed. The speaker, a young Lincoln mentor named Kathy Schmidt, placed her right hand on his left shoulder as he closed his eyes and held out his hands, palms open.
“More than anything,” she prayed, “I ask that in this election you lift up the righteous and bring down the wicked.”
The bad guys, in this case, are the Chicago-based moderates who aim to maintain control over the Illinois Republican Party. And the fair one is Mr. Bailey, a far-right senator who is unlike any candidate the party has put forward for governor in living memory.
A 56-year-old farmer whose southern Illinois home is closer to Nashville than Chicago, he wears his bob-cropped hair, drawls and doesn’t undermine his conservative credentials, as so many have done. former GOP candidates. made to try to please suburbanites in this predominantly Democratic state. On Saturday, former President Donald J. Trump endorsed Mr. Bailey at a rally near Quincy, Illinois.
Mr. Bailey overturned carefully laid $50 million plans by Republican leaders in Illinois to appoint Mayor Richard C. Irvin of Aurora, a moderate suburbanite with an inspiring personal story they say could win back the governor’s Springfield mansion in what is widely expected to be a winning year for Republicans.
Mr. Bailey was helped by an unprecedented intervention by Mr. Pritzker and the Pritzker-funded Democratic Governors Association, which spent nearly $35 million combined to attack Mr. Irvin while trying to lift Mr. Bailey . It is believed that no candidate for office has ever spent more to meddle in another party’s primary.
The Illinois gubernatorial race is now on track to become the most expensive campaign for non-presidential office in American history.
Public and private polls ahead of Tuesday’s primary show Mr Bailey has a 15 percentage point lead over Mr Irvin and four other candidates. Its strength signals the broader shift in Republican politics across the country away from urban power brokers and toward a rural base that demands loyalty to a far-right agenda aligned with Mr. Trump.
For Mr. Bailey, the proposal to excise Chicago, which he called a “hellhole” during a televised debate last month, encapsulates long-felt grievances in rural central and southern parts of Illinois – places culturally distant and long resentful of the politically dominant big city.
“The rest of the 90% of the earth mass is not very happy with the way 10% of the earth mass is running things,” Mr Bailey said in an interview aboard his campaign bus outside a bar at Green Valley, a village of 700 inhabitants. people south of Peoria. “A lot of people outside of that 10% don’t have a voice, and that’s a problem.”
That speech resonated with Tory voters who flocked to Mr. Bailey, who appeared to compare Mr. Irvin to Satan during a Facebook Live monologue in February.
“Everything we pay and do supports Chicago,” said Pam Page, a security analyst with State Farm Insurance of McLean, Ill., who came to see Mr. Bailey in Lincoln. “Downstate never seems to get any of the benefits or any of the kickbacks.”
The onslaught of Democratic TV ads attacking Mr Irvin and trying to elevate Mr Bailey has frustrated the mayor of Aurora, whose campaign was designed and funded by the same team of Republicans who helped elect social moderates like Mark Kirk as Senate in 2010 and Bruce Rauner as Governor in 2014. Their recipe: In strong Republican years, find moderate candidates who can win over suburban Chicago voters — and spend a ton of money.
Mr. Irvin, 52, fit their bill. Born to a teenage single mother in Aurora, he is an Army veteran of the first Gulf War who served as a local district attorney before becoming the city’s first black mayor, Illinois’ second most populous.
Kenneth Griffin, the founder of the billionaire Chicago hedge fund who is the Illinois Republicans’ top benefactor, gave Mr Irvin $50 million for the primary alone and pledged to spend more on him in the election general. Mr. Griffin, the richest man in the state, will not support any other Republicans in the race against Mr. Pritzker, according to his spokesman, Zia Ahmed. Mr. Griffin announced last week that his hedge fund and trading company would move to Miami.
While Mr. Irvin, a longtime Republican who nevertheless voted in a series of recent Democratic primaries in Illinois, expected a costly dogfight in the general election, he is frustrated by the interference of the primary season of Mr. Pritzker, a billionaire who is the richest in America. elected.
“It has never happened in the history of our nation for a Democrat to spend so much money to prevent an individual from becoming the Republican Party’s nominee,” Mr. Irvin said in an interview after visiting a factory. manufacturing in Wauconda, a well-to-do suburb north of Chicago. “There are six main Republican opponents – six of them. But when you turn on the television, all you see is me.
Mr Griffin said ‘JB Pritzker is terrified of facing Richard Irvin in the general election’.
He added, “He and his DGA cronies shamelessly spent tens of millions of dollars meddling in the Republican primary in an effort to mislead Republican voters.”
Mr Pritzker said the adverts emphasizing Mr Bailey’s Conservative credentials had the same message he planned to use in the general election. He said he was not afraid to run against Mr Irvin or the millions Mr Griffin would spend on his campaign.
“It’s a mess over there,” Mr. Pritzker said in an interview on Friday. “They are all anti-choice. Literally, you can go through the list of things that I think really matter to people across the state. And, you know, they’re all terrible. So I’ll take any of them and defeat them.
The main race alone attracted $100 million in television advertising. Mr. Pritzker has spent more money on TV ads than anyone running for any office in the country this year. Mr. Irvin ranks second, according to AdImpact, a media monitoring company.
Far behind them is Mr. Bailey, whose main financial benefactor is Richard Uihlein, the billionaire mega-donor to far-right Republican candidates, who has donated $9 million of the $11.6 million that Mr. Bailey raised and sent an additional $8 million to a political action committee. who attacked Mr. Irvin as insufficiently conservative.
Presidential bipartisan politics weigh in on the primary.
Mr. Irvin will not say who he voted for in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and, in the interview, declined to say whether he would support Mr. Trump if he ran for president in 2024. He called President Biden as a “legitimate president”. and said former Vice President Mike Pence fulfilled his constitutional duty on January 6, 2021.
As the primary approaches, establishment Republicans across the state are worried about the prospect of Mr. Bailey carrying the entire GOP ticket in November.
Rep. Darin LaHood predicted a “landfall” primary victory for Bailey in his central Illinois district, but warned he would be toxic to general election voters.
“Bailey is not going to play in the suburbs,” said LaHood, who did not endorse a primary candidate. “He has a Southern drawl, a Southern accent. I mean, he should be racing in Missouri, not suburban Chicago.
Former Governor Jim Edgar, the only Illinois governor outside the Chicago area since World War II, said Mr Bailey’s rise showed party leaders “don’t have the grip or controlling their constituents as they did in the 80s and 90s.
Mr Bailey’s supporters say the real fight is for the soul of the Republican Party. For them, winning the primary and taking control of the state party is just as important, if not more so, than winning the general election.
Thomas DeVore, his lawyer in the pandemic lawsuits against Mr. Pritzker, is running as attorney general on a slate with Mr. Bailey. During the election campaign, he wears untucked golf shirts that reveal his forearm tattoos – “Freedom” on his right arm, “Liberty” on his left.
“Whether or not Darren and I win the general election, if we can at least gain control within our own party, I think in the long run we have an opportunity to be successful,” Mr. DeVore said during their stop at Green Valley.
And David Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, an anti-abortion organization whose political arm has endorsed Mr. Bailey, said the race for the GOP was to excise moderate elements from the party.
“This primary,” he said, “must purge the Republican Party of those who are self-serving snollygosters.
Catherine Edmondson contributed reporting from Mendon, Illinois.