CHICAGO — Conservative voters in Illinois are tired of filling the Republican bench with moderates.
A string of victories notched Tuesday night by Donald Trump-backed candidates has realigned the GOP in a place where the party has been pushed out of every statewide office and subjected to Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature.
Darren Bailey emerged as the victor in the six-man Republican primary for governor. Rep. Mary Miller defeated five-term Rep. Rodney Davis in the high-profile member-versus-member GOP matchup. And Thomas Devore, a Bailey ally and attorney who challenged Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker on his Covid-19 mitigation strategies, got the party’s nod for attorney general.
The victories reveal how party divisions and weak fundraising have eroded a brand of Republicanism in Illinois that once found success focusing on fiscal conservative values.
The party saw this election cycle as its chance to make gains and become viable with independents, a dozen Illinois Republican insiders told POLITICO.
“A ballot that’s top-heavy with people viewed as extremists won’t play well in suburban areas, especially among suburban women,” former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar said in an interview. “We have to start identifying who can win a primary and a general. Right now, that looks like two different kinds of people.”
But Davis, a senior member of the House Committee on Administration, lost favor with the former president in part because he was among 35 Republicans to support a bipartisan independent investigation of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. That idea failed and a House select committee was created instead, yet the stain persisted.
Redistricting forced Davis and Miller to compete against each other. And early on it wasn’t clear whether Trump would get involved since both candidates support him. Trump ultimately backed Miller, holding a rally for her over the weekend where he came out in support of Bailey.
In the GOP primary for governor, Bailey, a farmer and state senator who once called for seceding Chicago from the rest of Illinois, bested Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, whose campaign was fueled by $50 million from billionaire GOP mega-donor Ken Griffin. Bailey’s campaign relied on smaller donations and a viral Facebook following before getting a $17 million infusion from billionaire Republican donor Richard Uihlein, who lives in Illinois, and a boost from ads by Democrats playing up Bailey as a Trump Republican.
Some Republicans see Irvin’s defeat as a missed opportunity in a year when the GOP hoped a combination of factors could carry them to the governor’s mansion: President Joe Biden’s weak polling, creeping inflation, concerns about crime and frustration over Pritzker’s pandemic restrictions.
Add Griffin’s willingness to match the millions of dollars Pritzker, a self-funded billionaire, would spend in the general election, and Republicans thought they could notch a statewide win.
“We had a mechanism in place where Mr. Griffin and some other donors were willing to get behind a moderate message to bring crossover voters. In Illinois, we only win elections when we appeal to disgruntled Democrats and moderate independents,” said Sean Morrison, a Republican commissioner in Cook County, which encompasses Chicago.
Well-funded as the politically moderate Irvin was, he was hobbled on one side by Democrats who pumped $34 million into ads attacking him while also promoting Bailey’s conservative credentials. The ads by Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association called attention to Bailey’s far-right beliefs on abortion and guns — the kind of issues that motivate Trump’s base but likely doom him in a blue state in November, especially after last week’s dismantling of Roe v. Wade. And Irvin was attacked by far-right Republicans backed by Uihlein for being too liberal.
Griffin enlisted political strategist Mike Zolnierowicz, chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, and others in Rauner’s political operation. They knew that to win in November, they needed a Republican who wouldn’t turn off independent voters in the Chicago media market with Trump-style rhetoric, according to a person familiar with the campaign.
Irvin, a Black Republican combat veteran and former criminal prosecutor, checked many of the boxes for success, and he was up about 6 points in May. But he failed to address whether he voted for Trump or give clear answers about his views on abortion rights. Then came a report that he described Trump as an “idiot” and “racist.” Irvin turned off conservative primary voters and his early lead shriveled.
Pat Brady, former head of the Illinois Republican Party who endorsed another GOP governor candidate, called the establishment party’s efforts to go all-in for Irvin a “debacle,” saying Griffin’s well-funded team should have known Democrats would push back hard. “It’s caused irreparable damage to the Illinois Republican Party” by creating even wider divisions, Brady said.
A person familiar with Irvin’s campaign strategy said it wasn’t the Democratic attacks that surprised them. It was Uihlein’s attempt to outflank them from the right.
Republicans also don’t want to take away from Bailey’s efforts. “He started from scratch. He’s got a base and he’s been able to work it. And he’s a personable individual,” Edgar said.
Don Tracy, who spoke at Bailey’s victory party Tuesday in rural Effingham in central Illinois, has been trying to unify the Illinois GOP since he became its chairman in February 2021 — when cracks were forming over Rep. Adam Kinzinger calling for the impeachment of Trump.
Tracy, who did not respond to requests for comment for this report, said in 2021 that he didn’t agree with Kinzinger’s views, but he also didn’t think Kinzinger should’ve been censured for them.
Kinzinger decided not to run for Congress in part because redistricting pushed him out but also because his party had changed. “There’s little to no desire to bridge our differences, and unity is no longer a word we use,” Kinzinger said in a video announcing his exit in January.
Illinois Republicans also are seeing their largest benefactor, Griffin, move his company to Florida and party leadership could be upended as Bailey settles into being the standard-bearer of the Illinois GOP.
“I grew up in the party of [former Govs.] Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar and now to have a gubernatorial candidate who wants to chop Chicago out of the state, it’s a little breath-taking,” said one local Republican Party official granted anonymity so they could speak freely about the GOP’s future in Illinois. “Just when I thought on the national scene we were distancing ourselves from Trump, here in Illinois, we seem to have adopted the Trump message. And it’s really kind of scary.”
They added: “I’m not surprised that Pritzker and DGA put a lot of money into propping up Bailey. It clearly was very effective.”
Jeanne Ives, a conservative who almost beat Rauner in the primary four years ago and endorsed Bailey this cycle, dismisses all the hand-wringing.
She said Bailey’s primary win shows “Illinois Republicans want somebody who has exhibited courage to stand up to the system and the bureaucrats.” And Miller’s victory, simply, shows “Trump’s endorsement means something.”
Shimkus, who represented central Illinois for 24 years, says the shift in the Republican Party coincides with the changes in the Democratic Party. He remembers starting out in politics at a time when Democrats dominated central and southern Illinois, areas Pritzker’s party has largely ceded.
“I’m still in the Republican Party because of Republican Party values. I still want to fight for that. That’s what primaries are for,” he said. “There are more of their type of conservative than my type of conservative. And if I still want to be a conservative, I still need to support the conservative team.”
Bailey may be a longshot in defeating Pritzker in November. But his name at the top of the ticket will generate interest among right-leaning voters fed up with the Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly.
“Republicans may not get the governorship or Senate, but if you make gains in the Legislature, then you’re coming back,” said Edgar, the former governor. “If those gains aren’t made, then we have a long way to go.”