Who will take on Gov. J.B. Pritzker this fall? Republican voters get final say in Tuesday’s primary

The winner of the primary will determine whether the state GOP continues as a center-right party in Illinois or gets recast as a subsidiary of former President Donald Trump.

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Headshots of Darren Bailey and Richard Irvin, GOP candidates for Illinois governor

Left: Darren Bailey, Illinois State Senator, 55th District and Gubernatorial candidate listens as a speaker discusses an abortion ban during a press conference, Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Right: Republican gubernatorial candidate Richard Irvin speaks at a press conference at the campaign’s headquarters at 104 S Michigan Ave, Wednesday, June 1, 2022.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

One candidate bore a flamethrower. Another wielded garden shears.

And tens of millions of dollars later, the state of Illinois has reached the end of a massive television and digital advertising season where competing campaigns sought to turn each other into political sawdust.

GOP primary voters will be choosing from a field of six candidates in a campaign that could redefine Illinois’ Republican Party, which has fallen on hard times after controlling the state Executive Mansion for 26 straight years with a series of socially moderate, sometimes-fiscally conservative governors. It’s shaping up to be one of the most cash-flush gubernatorial campaigns in at least a quarter century of American politics, thanks to the deep pockets of Illinois’ richest men.

The winner of this race will determine whether the state GOP continues as a center-right party in Illinois, as it was during its gravy days, or gets recast as a subsidiary of former President Donald Trump in all of his conspiratorial, election-denying grandeur.

During the gubernatorial primary’s final hours, Trump came to Illinois Saturday to give his kiss of approval to state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, the downstate grain farmer with the distinct, rural twang to his voice who suddenly caught fire in the race while calling Chicago a “hellhole.”

“Darren is just the man to take on and defeat one of the worst governors in America, J.B. Pritzker. He’s one of the worst,” Trump bellowed to more than 2,000 supporters at a thunderstorm-shortened campaign rally near Quincy as Bailey stood alongside him, beaming.

Bailey has done much of his communicating to voters with a daily chat on his Facebook page, which is a mix of personal quips about his day, Democrat-bashing and old-fashioned Sunday school built around Scripture readings and prayer. This past weekend, he didn’t mention any of his GOP rivals by name and instead almost seemed to be moving beyond the primary to a fall match-up against Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker waves at the crowd during the 51st Annual Pride Parade on the North Side, Sunday, June 26, 2022.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker waves at the crowd during the 51st Annual Pride Parade on the North Side, Sunday, June 26, 2022.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“Tuesday is the big day,” Bailey said on his campaign’s Facebook page. “That’s when we begin the change of Illinois, and I can assure you Gov. Pritzker is very, very concerned and fearful about this time because he knows the people of Illinois are tired of what’s going on.”

Bailey surged in the polls during the campaign’s final months and entered Election Day Tuesday ahead of Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin; Petersburg venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan; Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine; former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, of Waterloo; and Hazel Crest lawyer Max Solomon.

If recent polls are correct, Sullivan may outperform Irvin. And Sullivan’s extensive final weeks of campaigning show he’s doing his best to try to make that happen, including attending the Trump rally in which the former president opted for Bailey.

Bailey upended early political prognosticating that Irvin would be the hands-down favorite in the race by virtue of Chicago hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin declaring Irvin as his choice to unseat Pritzker this fall.

With Griffin’s endorsement came an astonishing $50 million in checks to Irvin’s campaign — and a political bulls-eye.

All of that Griffin money didn’t clear the field for Irvin. Instead, it made him the target for a multi-fronted assault of negative attack ads funded by Pritzker, the Democratic Governors’ Association, Bailey and others — all portraying the once Democratic-voting mayor as a phony Republican. In boosting Bailey’s conservative credentials, Pritzker cleverly portrayed Irvin as out of touch with the GOP base.

Irvin also did himself no favors through his performance at a May press conference designed to assail Pritzker over the COVID-19 deaths of 36 residents at the state-run veterans’ home in LaSalle during the peak of the pandemic in 2020.

Instead of that garnering headlines, Irvin couldn’t give reporters coherent answers on his stances on abortion and what he’d do if Roe v. Wade got overturned — a truly germane question given last week’s Supreme Court ruling reversing the landmark abortion case. Irvin also stumbled when asked whether he’d voted for Trump in 2016.

To Republican primary voters, those are two important issues, with a Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ poll showing likely GOP voters in Illinois heavily favoring Trump. The party faithful appeared to be taking note of Irvin’s awkward non-answers as he squirmed at the microphone that day.

Then, just days before the election, Irvin’s chief backer, Griffin, announced he was moving his hedge fund and market-making companies to Miami. Griffin’s camp insisted Irvin’s slumping popularity had nothing to do with the decision.

Bailey’s surge in GOP support was first evident in the Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ poll, taken June 6 and 7, that showed him 15 percentage points in the lead over the Aurora mayor.

If Bailey winds up winning Tuesday, voters will be embracing a Springfield novice who spent a term in the Illinois House before moving to the state Senate last year. He was part of a group of east-central Illinois lawmakers known as the Eastern Bloc, a group that seemed to want little to do with the GOP’s long-entrenched establishment wing and that regularly thumbed its nose at Pritzker as too far-left.

Bailey put his name on a resolution designed to carve Chicago out of the Land of Lincoln as a 51st state.

And he became a legal headache for Pritzker when he sued the governor early in the pandemic over his stay-at-home and other COVID-19 executive orders — moves that showed early promise for Bailey but eventually floundered.

Amid all of that, Bailey got himself kicked off the House floor for refusing to wear a mask.

During his campaign, Bailey built his Facebook persona and used the social media platform as a daily venue for chats from inside the study of his rural Clay County home nearly 250 miles south of Chicago.

Ken Griffin, founder of Citadel, dumped $50 million into Richard Irvin’s campaign, but polls show it could be for naught.

Ken Griffin, founder of Citadel, dumped $50 million into Richard Irvin’s campaign, but polls show it could be for naught.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

On Monday, Bailey finished the final leg of a 102-county swing through the state, offering a case study in political hustle and a contrast to Irvin, who engaged in an almost Rose Garden-like strategy seemingly designed to fortify his chances in the fall.

Irvin, who dubbed himself “JB Pritzker’s worst nightmare” in his ads, was on the campaign trail only sparingly and was rarely accessible to reporters. Last week, Irvin’s public schedule showed him with three stops on Tuesday and Wednesday and visits Saturday to Manhattan and to a Grundy County pub whose name offers about as good of a political dateline as any Illinois politician could seek out: Honest Abe’s Tap & Grill.

Irvin’s supporters stood by their candidate, even though a stony sense of reality appeared to have set in because of his lackluster showing in the polls.

“I still stand by my statements that he is the strongest candidate to challenge J.B. Pritzker in November, but J.B. Pritzker has done a hell of a job interfering in the Republican primary, and it looks like he’s going to accomplish what he set out to get — the weakest of the bunch,” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, who serves as Irvin’s campaign co-chair.

“Mother Teresa would look like the Dark Knight if she was in [Irvin’s] position. This is what happens. Every blemish that you have and anything you’ve done in your lifetime is going to be expanded by a thousand because of this business and how it’s run,” Durkin said last Thursday.

But with victory possibly in his grasp, Bailey told his Facebook followers over the weekend that his candidacy will usher in a new era of conservatism that will transform Illinois and Chicago.

“Look back into Illinois and find out when the last time Illinois had a conservative, Republican governor who actually stood and did something. It’s been a long, long time,” he said. “And I can assure you that ever since those days, Illinois has plummeted. We’ve become a laughing stock. ... Friends, those days are coming to an end.”

Dave McKinney and Tina Sfondeles cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times.

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