Pritzker picks his opponent — now he has to beat him
Gov. J.B. Pritzker will be a big favorite in the matchup against Republican Darren Bailey, but the conservative farmer will put up a fight.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker got the matchup he wanted Tuesday for the fall election by investing millions in helping Republican primary voters identify Darren Bailey as the conservative favorite —“too conservative for Illinois” as Democrats framed it with fingers crossed behind their backs.
Now to win a second term, Pritzker must defeat Bailey, a downstate farmer who gained notoriety as a first term state senator by challenging the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Conventional wisdom says Pritzker will do so, marking him as a heavy favorite for November in a Democrat-dominated state that for decades has been hospitable to only moderate Republicans in statewide races.
Bailey is a conservative’s conservative who looks like a candidate from the 1950s with the political beliefs to match and boasts the support of former President Donald Trump, who lost this state by 17 percentage points twice — 944,714 votes in 2016 and 1,025,024 in 2020. Bailey’s path to victory is not readily apparent.
But that’s why elections probably should come with the same disclaimer as the stock market: Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Working in Bailey’s favor is the expectation this will be a big Republican year nationally with the usual mid-term presidential backlash compounded by high inflation and gas prices and a worrisome war in Ukraine.
Throw in the fact Democratic voters often don’t turn out in off-year elections and you start to see why Illinois Democrats better not take anything for granted against Bailey.
Pritzker was definitely vulnerable, being relatively popular at best, although on solid ground with Democrats.
It’s been a difficult time to be governor with responsibility for safeguarding public health during a pandemic with decisions about mask mandates and closing businesses, which Bailey casts as restricting freedom.
On the flip side, the state benefitted greatly from an infusion of pandemic-related federal funding that helped stabilize government finances.
Pritzker will campaign on his track record of steering the state through its crises, while Bailey will feed off the anger generated against the governor in the process.
While Pritzker’s strategy in the Republican primary was designed to lift Bailey out of the pack and sideline moderate alternative Richard Irvin, it also served the purpose of defining Bailey for the fall.
Pritzker will continue to say Bailey is too conservative for Illinois and tie him to the unpopular Trump, while emphasizing Bailey’s reverence for guns and uncompromising opposition to abortion. Expect Pritzker to immediately launch an ad campaign depicting Bailey as even more of an extremist.
Bailey will counter that Democratic corruption and policies are to blame for the state’s problems with crime, the economy and its omnipresent financial threat — unfunded public pensions.
Don’t expect Bailey to moderate his views to attract suburban voters or otherwise soften his anti-Chicago profile. His success to date has been predicated on being his genuine self, which has attracted a highly-motivated group of supporters.
Also unanswered is whether Bailey’s billionaire backer Richard Uihlein will invest enough money in the fall campaign to keep Bailey competitive against Pritzker’s nearly bottomless deep pockets.
For Pritzker to lose, Democratic voters would have to take the election lightly. That’s always a real possibility.