As battle for Illinois governor shapes up, it is class warfare versus culture war

With Darren Bailey’s nomination as the Republican candidate for governor to challenge Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Illinois voters will have a choice for state chief executive this fall between candidates representing the opposites of a chasmic political ideological divide.

For Bailey, the fall campaign comes down to trying to wage class warfare on Pritzker, labeling him as an “out of touch, trust fund, elitist billionaire” unable to relate to the problems of common citizens.

At the same time, Pritzker’s campaign will be fighting a culture war against Bailey’s social conservatism while attacking the state lawmaker for his endorsement from former President Donald Trump — a two time loser by 17 percentage points in Illinois.

“Darren Bailey cannot side with the insurrectionists at the Capitol, assert that the 2020 election was stolen and say that women and their doctors should be jailed for having an abortion even in cases of rape and incest and expect to be handed the keys to the governor’s office,” Pritzker said Tuesday night at what he billed as a general election “kickoff event” at a South Loop hotel.

“I believe deeply in the fundamental rights of every person to live a life of their own design with accessible health care, quality education, safe schools, clean air, reproductive freedom and civil rights,” Pritzker said. “A place where people can be who they are and love who they love, without fear.”

Bailey’s victory was assisted by Pritzker and the Pritzker-backed Democratic Governors Association, with millions of dollars in ads and mailers asking Republicans if the downstate state senator was “too conservative for Illinois.” Now, for the general election campaign, Pritzker and the DGA will flood voters with the slogan along with Bailey’s ties to Trump.

Bailey has been an ardent opponent of many of the progressive social advances that have been pushed by Pritzker and that have become major topics in light of last week’s ruling by a conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the landmark decision that provided the right to have an abortion without undue government interference.

Bailey is opposed to abortion in all cases except for the life of the mother, while Pritzker has been a national advocate of abortion rights and helped enshrine that right into state law amid other laws that allow taxpayer funding for the abortions of poor women and remove a requirement of parental notification for minors seeking the procedure.

Bailey has vowed to repeal taxpayer funded abortions and reinstate the parental notification law and he has been sharply critical of Pritzker’s vow to make the state a haven for reproductive rights for women across the country. The lawmaker from downstate Xenia also has expressed opposition to gay and transgender rights and has complained of a “woke, liberal agenda” that includes indoctrinating children about sex. He also opposes gun regulation and wants a repeal of the state’s Firearm Owner Identification card.

“Darren Bailey does not represent Illinois values,” Pritzker said. “The Darren Baileys of this world want us to feel alone in a struggle that we’re all facing together. They want to distract us into believing that same-sex marriage, Black history, Disney World and library books are more of a threat to our children than AR-15s and ‘ghost guns,’” he said. “We’ve held the line here in Illinois. We’ve made sure that this state remains an island of freedom among a rising sea of right-wing extremism.”

Bailey said he won’t back off his conservatism for the general election, even to appeal to Chicago voters, saying “people are receptive. They’re ready for something different. We will stay consistent with our message and our work ethic and will not slow down. I have no doubt we will prevail.”

Bailey, who had, like Trump, appealed to disaffected conservative voters who felt government had forgot them, said on Tuesday night, “Tonight, your voices were finally heard — voices of working families, parents, taxpayers, law enforcement and everyday citizens. Voices from the farms, the suburbs, the city of Chicago.”

Bailey was assisted in his win by $17.1 million from ultra-conservative mega-donor Richard Uihlein, who owns the ULINE office supply business. But it’s unclear how much Uihlein will pump into Bailey’s general election campaign.

“Billionaire Pritzker has deep pockets, but the pockets of the working people, taxpayers, law enforcement, students and parents are getting smaller every day,” Bailey said.

In his nomination acceptance speech, Bailey largely shied away from controversial social issues, even going so far to say that “when we win, Springfield will stop trying to control people’s lives and start working to make them better.”

As much as it was a Bailey victory, it was also an ignominious defeat for the state’s Republican establishment, which lined up behind Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin and Ken Griffin’s $50 million financial investment in him and a slate of statewide candidates. In addition to Irvin’s loss, the slate’s candidates in competitive primaries for attorney general and secretary of state also were defeated.

The last candidate to enter the field, Irvin was pitched as an inevitable nominee who could take on Pritzker and statewide Democrats. Party insiders spoke of the campaign’s arrogance in gaining endorsements and warding off additional challenges and attempting to dictate a slate of candidates without internal debate.

At the same time, the largely moribund Illinois GOP apparatus served as little more than an echo chamber for Irvin’s campaign, pushing his agenda in its fundraising emails to party regulars and fundraising donors.

While Irvin is an adept retail campaigner, his campaign offered few opportunities for him to work the stump. Instead most of the work was left to his barrage of TV ads.

But Irvin’s focus on fighting crime — an issue pushed by Griffin — was not a top concern of Republican voters. And the ads also portrayed Irvin as having a hard- bullying image that failed to demonstrate any empathy the candidate had for problems that concerned voters, such as inflation.

Bailey and followers of his brand of arch-conservatism have long chafed under the more moderate Republicans who controlled the party organization for decades. But his victory gives those conservatives who have been on the outside looking in an opportunity to take control, sending the Illinois GOP significantly further rightward, a shove helped by Trump’s presidency.

There’s no secret that Bailey has had differences with Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

He recounts his disdain for state Rep. Avery Bourne of Morrisonville, Irvin’s running mate, for chastising him for his failure to wear a mask in the makeshift House floor at the Bank of Springfield civic center as required by House rules during the height of the pandemic in May 2020. Kicked off the floor by a vote of the chamber, including many of his GOP colleagues, he returned the next day wearing a mask.

Bailey also backed some Republican legislative candidates over those pushed by party leaders.

“We will take back our government from the political elites and the failed establishment from both parties,” Bailey vowed.

The GOP’s more moderate wing, reeling from the collapse of Irvin’s candidacy, is now fearful of the impact of Bailey’s candidacy as he leads the ticket for Springfield offices.

“We are really going to get our ass handed to us,” predicted one Republican in party legislative leadership, where the GOP has been a super-minority to House and Senate Democrats. “If we thought where we were was bad, this is going to be a helluva lot worse.”

But Bailey said people should dismiss the naysayers.

“Springfield and the political elites have failed every one of us and now the elites and the press say that Pritzker is a shoo-in. They say our fate’s set, that a farmer can’t beat a billionaire,” he said. “Friends, the funny thing is these same people said that we couldn’t win the primary.”

(Madeline Buckley contributed from Effingham.)