Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll: Downstate farmer beating the crop out of GOP establishment in gov race — by nearly 2-1 ratio

If the numbers hold, it would represent a brutal repudiation by Illinois’ Republican voters of Irvin, his mainstream party endorsements and, pointedly, his $50 million benefactor, Chicago hedge fund tycoon Ken Griffin.

SHARE Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll: Downstate farmer beating the crop out of GOP establishment in gov race — by nearly 2-1 ratio
Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin (left) and state Sen. Darren Bailey at separate Chicago news conferences this year.

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin (left) and state Sen. Darren Bailey at separate Chicago news conferences this year.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times-file

In a potentially seismic shift in the Republican race for governor, downstate farmer Darren Bailey has seized a 15-percentage-point lead over Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin less than three weeks before the Illinois primary, a new Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll has found.

The survey of 677 likely Republican primary voters taken Monday and Tuesday by Public Policy Polling showed the first-term senator from southern Illinois taking a commanding lead over Irvin and four other primary rivals, marking the first public poll to put Bailey ahead.

A total of 32% of respondents said they’d vote for Bailey if the primary were held this past week. Only 17% chose Irvin.

The downstate lawmaker led Irvin not only on his own rural and small-town turf but also in the vast stretch of Chicago’s suburbs, where the Aurora mayor had been expected to do well.

If the numbers hold, it would represent a brutal repudiation by Illinois’ Republican voters of Irvin, his array of mainstream party endorsements and, most pointedly, his $50 million benefactor, Chicago hedge fund tycoon Ken Griffin.

As the new polling suggests, Griffin’s designs on installing the mayor of Illinois’ second- largest city in the Executive Mansion could be on the verge of getting chewed up and spit out like wheat chaff by a Bible-quoting archconservative who has driven a combine for a living.

For Irvin, the results from the Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll suggest that his campaign might be losing steam at a crucial time. Irvin is fending off TV ads not just from Bailey and rival candidate Jesse Sullivan but also from the Democratic Governors Association, Pritzker and a dark money group airing its own critical ads.

Irvin did not dispute the numbers when asked by a reporter at a Bloomington news conference Friday. He said polls are a snapshot and repeatedly made a point he’s been making for months: Pritzker and Democrats are hand-picking Bailey as the candidate they’d rather face in November.

“J.B. Pritzker is spending tens of millions of dollars meddling in the Republican primary to prop up a Republican that he knows he can beat,” Irvin said. “A vote for Darren Bailey is a vote for J.B. Pritzker. Period.”

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Bailey is in a position to capitalize on the poll’s findings as he embarks on an ambitious bus tour he said in a Wednesday Facebook post would make stops in all of Illinois’ 102 counties the next two weeks.

The poll found Bailey has a nearly two-to-one lead over Irvin, with the rest of the field trailing badly.

Besides Bailey, Irvin and venture capitalist Sullivan, other Republicans on the June 28 gubernatorial ballot are suburban businessman Gary Rabine, former state Sen. Paul Schimpf and Hazel Crest attorney Max Solomon.

Whoever emerges from that field will take on first-term Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker this fall, assuming the governor turns back a nominal primary challenger himself later this month.

Republican gubernatorial candidates, top row from left, Richard Irvin, Gary Rabine, Darren Bailey; bottom row from left, Paul Schimpf, Max Solomon and Jesse Sullivan.

Republican gubernatorial candidates, top row from left, Richard Irvin, Gary Rabine, Darren Bailey; bottom row from left, Paul Schimpf, Max Solomon and Jesse Sullivan.

Sun-Times file photos by Rich Hein. Anthony Vazquez, Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

Besides Bailey and Irvin, only Sullivan finished in double digits in the poll, with 11%. Rabine had 6%; Schimpf — who got the Chicago Tribune’s endorsement — had 4% and Solomon just 2%. The automated poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points, found 27% of respondents were still undecided.

Under that scenario, to move into first place, Irvin would need to win over more than half of those uncommitted voters and keep Bailey from picking up any of them.

The Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll — and follow-up interviews with some of those surveyed — suggests that abortion, Griffin’s millions and former President Donald Trump all influenced respondents’ decisions.

One downstate retiree complained that Irvin was “just not a Trumper.”

‘Hands of a farmer’ yank the lead from Irvin

The polling was conducted less than a week after a second televised debate, in which Irvin’s five rivals focused much of their attacks on him. Equally important, it followed nearly four months of campaign ads and mailers inundating GOP voters. Irvin’s poor showing in the poll comes amid word his campaign has ceased buying television ad time downstate and, according to a spokeswoman, was “reassessing” its ad strategy.

Irvin began the ad war in January, when he aired his first commercial, showing rioting in Aurora’s streets and touting his law-and-order credentials, which have been a focus of his campaign. In a later commercial, Irvin described himself as the “worst nightmare” of Springfield’s Democratic ruling elite.

But Bailey has answered Irvin’s ad barrage with his own commercials funded largely by more than $9 million in contributions from Richard Uihlein, a Republican mega-donor and Lake Forest billionaire. Uihlein was a primary source of political funding for an ultra-conservative group that participated in the rally that preceded the attempted Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

In one of Bailey’s commercials, he displays a softer side of himself, emphasizing his worn hands holding two fistfuls of corn and tying the shoe of a granddaughter.

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“These are the hands of a farmer, strong and determined, a grandfather’s hands, supportive and caring,” running mate Stephanie Trussell says in the ad.

Another of his ads showcases a more hell-raising persona, with Bailey aiming a flamethrower at a stack of papers labeled as the “pork-filled” state budget and dramatically torching it.

Perhaps of most significance was where the poll found Bailey to be winning.

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Not surprisingly, Bailey appears to be carrying his home base, leading Irvin downstate 38% to 14%. But in an ominous turn for Irvin, Bailey also was ahead in the collar counties, 29% to 18%, and in suburban Cook County, 29% to 21%. Suburban Chicago had been thought to be an Irvin stronghold, and the Chicago television market is where Irvin concentrated much of his ad buying.

In Chicago — generally not prime turf for any Republican — the news for Irvin wasn’t any better. Sullivan, of downstate Petersburg, led in the city with 26%, followed by Irvin at 16% and Bailey at 13%.

Chicago ‘a hellhole?’ GOP voters more concerned about economy than crime

Bailey is anti-abortion and a staunch Trump supporter. He once belonged to a group of conservative state representatives dubbed the “Eastern Bloc” that sponsored a ceremonial state resolution calling on Chicago — which Bailey derided in two debates as a crime-ridden “hellhole” — to be separated from the rest of Illinois. Bailey has vowed to impose term limits and cut taxes, and he was a leader of a movement against Pritzker’s COVID-19 executive orders and mandates.

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Irvin is in his second term as Aurora mayor and has repeatedly touted his municipal experience as proof he could handle everything from fighting crime to reducing property taxes to bipartisanship — but he has provided limited details about his actual platform. He has denied that he’s shifted stances on various issues, including previous support for mandates and Black Lives Matter.

The poll found that 44% considered the economy their top concern. Crime and corruption came in second with 11% each, while taxes polled at 10%. Just 8% of those polled called abortion their top concern.

Irvin’s murky stance on abortion — and his dodging whether he supports Trump — eroded his standing with some GOP voters concerned about how conservative he is, according to poll respondents who spoke to the Sun-Times and WBEZ.

Though Irvin has said he’s “pro-life,” he has repeatedly refused reporters’ requests to comment on the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion that might signal the overturn of Roe v. Wade. He also has refused to say what he would do to curtail abortions in Illinois if that court precedent no longer exists. The rest of the GOP primary field has signaled support for an abortion ban.

The poll was clear where Illinois Republican voters stand. Nearly two-thirds of the Republicans surveyed supported tossing out Roe v. Wade, with less than a fifth in opposition.

One poll respondent, Judy Keefe, said Bailey’s clarity on banning abortions and Irvin’s seeming equivocation made her rethink her initial support for Irvin. The 68-year-old semi-retired administrative assistant from Niles said she is now in Bailey’s camp and still doesn’t grasp Irvin’s position on abortion.

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“Bailey is courageous, and he says it very clearly what he is for, and I admire that,” she said. “He is not taking necessarily a popular opinion, but he’s doing the right thing.”

Keefe also said she considered Irvin’s reliance on Griffin’s tens of millions of dollars a liability and “very troubling.”

“There’s going to have to be some payback there,” she said, questioning whether Irvin truly could act independently of his uber-wealthy patron. “I’m not sure what side he’s [on] except the side to make Ken Griffin happy and to be the governor.”

Irvin has denied that Griffin would be in the driver’s seat, telling the Sun-Times he’s “nobody’s pushover” and is his “own man.”

Trumped by forgotten text messages?

Trump appeared to be a factor in whom Illinois Republicans are prepared to support.

The poll found 52% of respondents said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported Trump, while 36% said it wouldn’t make a difference. Another 8% said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who supported the former president.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., in 2021.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., in 2021.

John Raoux/AP file

Bailey visited Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in April, saying he had an “amazing conversation” with the ex-president. He later posted a picture of the two on his Twitter account. But Trump has stayed out of Illinois’ Republican gubernatorial primary after being stung by recent endorsements around the country that didn’t pan out.

By contrast, some poll respondents voiced criticism of Irvin’s seemingly hostile views of Trump.

Irvin has lacked clarity on whether he supports Trump. In May, WTTW-TV reported on text messages it obtained in which the Aurora mayor in 2018 called Trump “an idiot” and a “bigoted racist.” Irvin has said he doesn’t remember sending the text messages.

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Poll respondent Salli Kuncewicz, 66, a retiree from Quincy, said she chose Bailey because Irvin was “just not a Trumper.”

“The way I look at Trump, he’s a financial person,” Kuncewicz said. “So what I look for is the person who is going to be the best for the working man. And I’m not real sure he [Irvin] would do that. He’s one of the never-Trumpers, and that really kind of turned me around.”

Overall, the poll found Republican voters liked Bailey more than Irvin — with well over half having a favorable view of the state senator, compared to a little more than a third for the Aurora mayor.

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Asked their opinion of Bailey, 26% said it was very favorable, while 31% said it was somewhat favorable. Another 11% said their opinion of Bailey was somewhat unfavorable, 5% said it was very unfavorable, and 27% weren’t sure.

For Irvin, just 9% viewed him very favorably, while 26% of those polled view him somewhat favorably. Another 18% had somewhat unfavorable opinions of Irvin, and 25% had very unfavorable views. Another 22% were unsure.

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Any poll is just a snapshot, but the Sun-Times/WBEZ pollster has a solid track record.

FiveThirtyEight gives Public Policy Polling an A- grade among pollsters it analyzed, based on the firm’s historical accuracy and surveying methodology. The Democratic-leaning pollster, based in Raleigh, N.C., accurately predicted the outcome of 79% of races it called, FiveThirtyEight reported.

Tina Sfondeles and Dave McKinney cover Illinois politics and government for the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @TinaSfon and @davemckinney.

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