‘Downstate farmer’ plows through the field — Darren Bailey handily wins six-candidate GOP governor’s race

With 96% of precincts counted statewide, Bailey had 57.4% of the vote compared to 15.7% for downstate venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan and 15% for third-place candidate Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin.

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State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, and his wife Cindy wave as they walk on stage to speak at an election night rally at the Thelma Keller Convention Center in Effingham after Bailey won the Republican gubernatorial primary election, Tuesday night.

State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, and his wife Cindy wave as they walk on stage to speak at an election night rally at the Thelma Keller Convention Center in Effingham after Bailey won the Republican gubernatorial primary election, Tuesday night.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

EFFINGHAM, Ill. — Darren Bailey, the MAGA-loving, Bible quoting grain farmer and state senator from downstate Illinois will face Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker in the November election — thanks in part to an odd and historic pairing of support from former President Donald Trump, Lake Forest mega donor Dick Uihlein and Democrats such as Pritzker himself.

With 96% of precincts counted statewide, Bailey had 57.4% of the vote compared to 15.7% for downstate venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan and 15% for third-place candidate Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin.

Bailey dominated a six-candidate field — including Irvin, who was boosted by a hefty haul of $50 million in campaign cash from Chicago hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin.

“God bless you. Thanks be to God. We did it. And we’re going to do it again!” a jubilant Bailey told cheering supporters in a packed downstate Effingham banquet room, arriving onstage with his wife to Brooks & Dunn’s country music anthem to the working class, “Hard Workin’ Man.”

The crowd donned campaign T-shirts and American flag-themed clothing. They were called “patriots” by speakers and cheered to a video of Trump’s endorsement at a Mendon rally over the weekend. And they cheered any time the reversal of Roe v. Wade was mentioned.

Former President Donald Trump, right, ushers gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Darren Bailey to the podium at a rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill., last month.

Former President Donald Trump, right, ushers gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Darren Bailey to the podium at a rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill., on Saturday.

Mike Sorensen/Quincy Herald-Whig via AP

“Friends, tonight, your voices were finally heard. The voices of working families, parents, taxpayers, law enforcement and everyday citizens, voices from the farms, the suburbs, the city of Chicago and every place in between. Let’s hear it up for Chicago tonight!” said Bailey, who characterized the city as a “hellhole” during his campaign.

“Tonight, our movement sent a clear message to the establishment and the political elites, we will not be ignored,” he said.

The grain farmer from Xenia in southern Illinois also played up the contrast between himself and the billionaire governor from Chicago.

“Throughout this campaign, people have referred to me as a downstate farmer,” Bailey said, chuckling. “And you know what, they’re right. I’m proud to be a family farmer, and I love to remind people what farmers do. They feed the world. Thank you.

“We get up before the sun comes up, and often we work until after it goes down.”

Bailey later told reporters that all of his competitors except for Irvin called to vouch their support to help unite the Republican party.

The remaining three — Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine, former state Sen. Paul Schimpf and south suburban lawyer Max Solomon — all finished in the single digits.

In the end, Bailey had multiple factors on his side, including a rising faction of far-right conservatives in the state, millions in attack ad dollars from Democrats — and actual political hustle. Bailey’s grassroots campaign efforts included a Facebook persona that used his social media platform as a daily venue for chats. And Bailey announced his run back in February 2021, about 11 months before Irvin jumped in the race.

Bailey spent one 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 put their 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.

After spending heavily throughout the campaign cycle, Irvin held a modest election night party at his campaign headquarters in downtown Aurora — an inauspicious venue for a candidate who was once considered a frontrunner before facing attacks from all angles.

“In this race for governor, we may not have reached our goals tonight, but we are victorious for daring to step into the arena,” Irvin said in a concession speech.

He pointed his loss directly at Pritzker.

“Our background, our record and our message was so compelling, was so overwhelmingly likely to prevail in November, J.B. Pritzker and the Democratic Party spent the most amount of money in the history of democracy meddling in a Republican primary to take us down,” Irvin said.

“Tonight, J.B. Pritzker won the Republican primary for governor here in Illinois. He spent a historic amount of money to choose his own Republican opponent in the general election,” Irvin continued. “I wish Darren Bailey well as he moves onto the general election.”

Irvin’s main benefactor, Griffin, issued a statement praising the Aurora mayor’s candidacy and held to the belief he was the best fall match-up against Pritzker. The Chicago hedge fund billionaire made no mention of Bailey.

“I believe Richard Irvin would have been a terrific governor, and I am proud to have supported his campaign,” Griffin said. “His proven success in lowering taxes, addressing crime, creating jobs and taking on struggles facing Illinois families offered an encouraging and stark alternative to J.B. Pritzker’s agenda for Illinois.

“The unprecedented tens of millions of dollars spent by Pritzker and national Democrats in the Republican primary to avoid facing Richard in the general election demonstrated he was the right candidate,” Griffin said.

According to Irvin’s campaign, the Democratic Governors’ Association spent $26.8 million in television and digital ads boosting Bailey. The DGA followed a playbook being used by Democrats across the country — painting a candidate as “too conservative” to bring out GOP support. Pritzker himself spent about $6.5 million in television ads largely muddying up Irvin.

It appears to have worked.

Irvin’s fall from the top was undoubtedly aided by attack ads that painted a bullseye on his face — but the suburban mayor did himself no favors by following a playbook to ignore two hot button issues for Republican primary voters in Illinois: Trump and abortion. The campaign sought to look ahead to a general election against Pritzker while underplaying Bailey’s imminent danger.

While Trump’s endorsement, just three days before the election, can’t be credited for the win, Bailey was able to tap into a conservative shift in the state’s Republican party, with many voters who still support the former president.

At the Marriott Marquis hotel near McCormick Place, Pritzker took the stage to a packed ballroom shortly after 9:30 p.m. after having easily fended off a nominal primary challenge himself. Immediately, he tore into his newly crowned Republican general election opponent.

“I’m JB Pritzker, and I’m going to beat Donald Trump’s candidate for governor, Darren Bailey!” Pritzker said to a huge burst of applause.

Tina Sfondeles is the Sun-Times chief political reporter. She reported from Effingham. Tom Schuba is a Sun-Times reporter who reported from Aurora. Dave McKinney is a WBEZ reporter working from Chicago.

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