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MAGA Voters Send a $50 Million G.O.P. Plan Off the Rails in Illinois

LINCOLN, Illinois — Darren Bailey, the Republican primary for Illinois governor, was finishing his stump speech at a senior citizen center in this Central Illinois town last week when a voice shouted, “Can we pray for you? †

Mr. Bailey agreed immediately. The speaker, a Lincoln youth mentor named Kathy Schmidt, placed her right hand on his left shoulder as he closed his eyes and held out his hands, palms open.

“More than anything,” she prayed, “I ask you in this election to raise up the righteous and strike down the wicked.

The wicked in this case are the Chicago-based moderates who want to maintain control of the Illinois Republican Party. And the righteous one is Mr. Bailey, a far-right state senator unlike any candidate the party has nominated for governor since time immemorial.

A 56-year-old rancher whose Southern Illinois home is closer to Nashville than Chicago, he wears his hair cropped short, speaks in a thick drawl, and doesn’t brush up on his conservative credentials like so many leading GOP candidates of the past to appeal to the suburbs in this predominantly democratic state. On Saturday, former President Donald J. Trump approved of Mr. Bailey at a rally near Quincy, Illinois.

Mr. Bailey has overturned carefully crafted $50 million plans by Illinois Republican leaders to nominate Mayor Richard C. Irvin of Aurora, a moderate suburban with an inspiring personal story they believed would be the governor’s mansion in Springfield. can win back in what is widely predicted to be a winning year for Republicans.

Mr. Bailey has been aided by unprecedented intervention from Mr. Pritzker and the Pritzker-funded Democratic Governors Association, who collectively spent nearly $35 million Mr Irvin . to attack while try to get mr. to lift Bailey† It is believed that no candidate for office has ever spent more to interfere in another party’s primary.

The Illinois governor’s race is now on track to become the costliest campaign for a non-presidential office in US history.

Public and private polls ahead of Tuesday’s primaries show Mr. See Bailey with: a lead of 15 percentage points about mr. Irvin and four other candidates. His strength signals the wider shift in Republican politics across the country away from urban power brokers and toward a rural base demanding allegiance to a far-right agenda aligned with Mr Trump.

For Mr. Bailey, the proposal to excise Chicago was what he called “hell” during a televised debate last monthsummarizes the grievances long felt in rural central and southern Illinois — places that were culturally distant and long outraged by the politically dominant big city.

“The rest of the 90 percent of the landmass isn’t really happy with the way 10 percent of the landmasses are running things,” Bailey said in an interview aboard his campaign bus outside a bar in Green Valley, a village of 700 residents. . people south of Peoria. “Beyond that 10 percent, a large number of people have no voice, and that’s a problem.”

That tone resonated with conservative voters who flocked to Mr Bailey, who seemed to liken Mr Irvin to Satan during a Facebook Live monologue in February.

Everything we pay and do supports Chicago,” said Pam Page, a safety analyst with State Farm Insurance of McLean, Illinois, who visited Mr. Bailey in Lincoln. “Downstate just never seems to get any of the benefits or kickbacks.”

The onslaught of Democratic television commercials attacking Irvin and attempting to elevate Mr. Bailey has frustrated the mayor of Aurora, whose campaign was conceived and funded by the same team of Republicans who helped elect social moderates like Mark Kirk to the Senate in 2010 and Bruce Rauner as governor in 2014. Their recipe: In strong Republican years, find moderate candidates who can win over voters in the suburbs of Chicago — and spend a lot of money.

Mr. Irvin, 52, fit their bill. Born to a teenage single mother in Aurora, he is an Army veteran of the first Gulf War who served as a local prosecutor before becoming the city’s first black mayor, the second most populous city in Illinois.

Kenneth Griffin, the founder of the Chicago hedge fund, billionaire and Republicans’ major benefactor in Illinois, gave $50 million to Mr. Irvin for the primaries only and promised to spend more for him in the general election. According to his spokesman Zia Ahmed, Mr. Griffin, the richest man in the state, will not support any other Republican in the race against Mr. Pritzker. Mr. Griffin announced last week that his hedge fund and trading firm would be moving to Miami.

While Mr. Irvin, a longtime Republican who nevertheless voted in a series of recent Democratic primaries in Illinois, expected an expensive dogfight in the general election, he is frustrated by the intervention of Mr. Pritzker, a billionaire who America’s Richest Elected Official

“It’s never happened in the history of our nation that a Democrat would spend so much money trying to prevent one person from becoming the Republican party candidate,” Irvin said in an interview after touring a factory in Wauconda, a well-known state. to-do suburb north of Chicago. “There are six Republican primary opponents – six of them. But if you turn on the television, all you see is me.”

Mr Griffin said that “JB Pritzker is terrified of meeting Richard Irvin in the general election.”

He added, “He and his cronies at the DGA have blatantly spent tens of millions of dollars on meddling in the Republican primaries in an effort to fool Republican voters.”

Mr Pritzker said ads highlighting Mr Bailey’s conservative credentials conveyed the same message he plans to use in the general election. He said he wasn’t afraid to take on Mr. Irvin or the millions Mr. Griffin would spend on his campaign.

“It’s a mess in there,” said Mr. Pritzker in an interview on Friday. “They are all anti-choice. Literally you can go down the list of things I think really matter to people across the state. And you know, they’re all awful. So I’ll take one of them and I’ll beat them.”

The primary race alone has brought in $100 million in TV advertising. mr. Pritzker has spent more money on TV ads this year than anyone else who worked for an office in the country. Mr. Irvin ranks second, according to AdImpact, a media tracking company.

Far behind them is Mr. Bailey, whose main financial benefactor is Richard Uihlein, the billionaire megadonor to far-right Republican candidates, who donated $9 million of the $11.6 million Mr. Bailey has raised and sent an additional $8 million to a political action committee that has attacked Mr. Irvin as insufficiently conservative.

Presidential politics for both parties looms over the primary.

Irvin declined to say who he voted for in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and declined to say in the interview whether he would support Trump if he ran for president in 2024. He called President Biden “the legitimate president” and said former Vice President Mike Pence had fulfilled his constitutional duty on Jan. 6, 2021.

As the primaries approach, incumbent Republicans across the state are concerned about the prospect of Mr. Bailey dragging the entire GOP ticket down in November.

Representative Darin LaHood predicted an “overwhelming” primary win for Bailey in his Central Illinois district, but warned he would be toxic to voters in the general election.

“Bailey is not going to play in the suburbs,” said Mr. LaHood, who has not supported a primary candidate. “He has a southern accent, a southern accent. I mean, he should be running in Missouri, not suburban Chicago.”

Former Governor Jim Edgar, the only Illinois governor from outside the Chicago area since World War II, said Mr Bailey’s rise showed party leaders “don’t have the grip or control over their voters as they did in the 1980s.” . and the 90s.”

The followers of Mr. Bailey say the real fight is for the soul of the Republican Party. For them, winning the primaries and taking control of the state party is just as important, if not more important, than winning the general election.

Thomas DeVore, his attorney in the pandemic lawsuits against Mr. Pritzker, running for Attorney General on a slate with Mr. On the campaign trail, he wears unbuttoned golf shirts revealing his forearm tattoos: “Freedom” on his right arm, “Liberty” on his left.

Whether Darren and I win the general election or not, if we can at least gain control within our own party, I think we have a long-term chance of being successful,” said Mr. DeVore during their stop in Green Valley.

And David Smith, the executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, an anti-abortion organization whose political arm supported Mr Bailey, said the GOP race was about cutting out the party’s moderate elements.

This primary, he said, should purge the Republican Party of those who are self-serving snollygosters.

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting from Mendon, Ill.

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