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Feb. 24—EFFINGHAM — State Sen. Darren Bailey announced his candidacy for Illinois governor in a packed banquet hall at Thelma Keller Convention Center in Effingham on Monday night.
Outside the building, a tour bus with a fresh paint job and a larger-than-life photo of the Republican from Xenia, near Louisville, standing on a farm greeted attendees.
"Cindy and I are pleased to announce to you to seek the nomination of the Republican party, the party of Lincoln, to be your next governor," Bailey said to whoops and hollers from an excited crowd.
"We can't do this alone. This is a grassroots movement and it starts with you. It starts here tonight, in Effingham, Illinois," Bailey said during his announcement speech.
Several hundred people crowded the hall, mostly standing shoulder to shoulder. Its organizers claimed more than 500 people came, with nearly no one wearing a mask.
Under current guidelines from the governor and state department of health, gatherings of more than 50 people are banned and masks are required in all public spaces. Bailey has led legal battles against Gov. J.B. Pritzker's orders related to COVID-19 mitigations and has been an outspoken critic of the first-term Democrat.
The event's opening acts included a band of Baily's friends, family and supporters.
State Rep. Chris Miller, R-Oakland, took to the stage for an opening speech and invocation prayer for the evening. He compared Bailey to Moses while delivering his speech, likening his supporters to Moses' companions.
"There are going to need to be men like Aaron and Hur to come alongside Darren and lift his hands up so he can continue to prevail," Miller said, raising his own hands. "One thing I know about this race: If Darren Bailey is the governor of the state of Illinois, there is a God in heaven!"
The religious themes of the evening continued throughout, with Bailey saying he prayed and fasted over his decision to run. Hymns and patriotic songs played while people waited for the event to start.
Nearly every speaker invoked the name of God. The side of Bailey's new tour bus reads, "Ephesians 6:10-19," which is a verse about the "armor of God."
"That's every morning when I pray," Bailey said when asked about it. "I suit up with the power of God."
People at the event seemed to appreciate Bailey's rejection of the state's COVID restrictions.
Angel Rhodes, a resident of Bailey's senate district, is relatively new to politics.
"I didn't get involved until Gov. Pritzker started doing all the things he was doing," she said.
Rhodes is excited about the local Republican's chances.
"I think they're good. He has more followers than we realize," she said, pointing out several Facebook groups she has seen full of his supporters.
Some of the attendees took the opportunity to get excited, with Jonathan Piperakis, a local Republican committee member, showing up dressed head to toe as Uncle Sam.
"I bought it for a parade," he said, laughing as his fake beard started to fall off in the hot banquet hall.
Other local Republicans are also excited about Bailey's candidacy. Effingham County Board Chairman Jim Niemann, who has pushed for many of the county's right-wing political resolutions, is proud to see a Republican representing Effingham County run for the state's top office.
"I think it's good for us to have a governor from downstate," he said. "I think his politics align with a pretty significant majority of Effingham.
"It's always tough to overcome the Chicago machine. If there's a Republican who can unseat a Democrat, it's him," Niemann added.
More than a year remains before the Republican primary. Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at University of Illinois Springfield, said Bailey's run has potential, but could face challenges in the primary and general election.
"If you split the social conservative vote, then it would be difficult for someone to win against a more moderate person," Redfield said, referring to the Republican primary. That said, if several moderates split the primary vote and Bailey comes out as the leading hardline conservative, he could win.
But that leaves the general election against a Democrat, potentially Pritzker. Redfield said that if a Republican candidate doesn't attract the attention and donations from influential Republican billionaires like Richard Uihlein, they could face trouble. Uihlein is a conservative billionaire, an heir to the Schlitz brewing fortune.
"The Republican financial base, minus the billionaires, has atrophied quite significantly. When you get to the general, you've got quite the problem," he said.
This deterioration comes from, in Redfield's analysis, Illinois Democrats' fierce support from labor unions, the health care industry, and others. That support was made only stronger from the governorship of Bruce Rauner, who alienated these groups from the Republican party.
Local Democrats, while keeping an eye on Bailey, aren't focused on him.
"It's very early," said Cynthia Given, a Richland County Democrat who ran against Bailey in his races for state representative and senator.
"With a full year from the primary, we'll see a lot of candidates come in and out of the race," she said. She also said that, at this point, few people outside of politics are even paying attention.
"Most people are more concerned with how to pay their bills," Given said.
Bailey is the latest of a small number of downstate politicians to have run for the governor's office. Former U.S. Congressman Glenn Poshard made an unsuccessful run in 1998 against Republican George Ryan. State Senator Jason Plummer, whose district represents most of the City of Effingham, ran an unsuccessful campaign in 2010 for lieutenant governor alongside Republican Bill Brady.
If elected, Bailey would be the first governor from south of Kankakee in almost 70 years. Adlai Stevenson II, who grew up in Bloomington, served as governor from 1949 to 1953.
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