'Epic failure': Inside the Illinois GOP's $50 million primary 'debacle'

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CHICAGO — Illinois Republicans have descended into infighting and finger-pointing on the eve of the state’s primaries as a MAGA-aligned candidate for governor appears poised to claim the nomination over the GOP establishment favorite who spent $50 million only to see his prospects collapse.

Richard Irvin, the mayor of Aurora, not only is expected to lose Tuesday, but he could end up in third place or worse, according to recent polls. That’s despite the tens of millions in dollars that a hedge fund billionaire poured into his candidacy — all part of an effort to propel a candidate who party leaders believed could give Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker a tough race in a state where Republicans have typically had to position themselves as moderates to win statewide.

Interviews with more than a dozen Illinois Republicans point to external and internal forces driving Irvin’s flagging levels of support, which have exposed sharp splits within the party between moderates and MAGA conservatives that mirror divides playing out in other states and nationally.

Meanwhile, the GOP establishment, long frustrated by the state’s Democratic Party dominance, is experiencing its own rift. It’s angry over how the Irvin campaign was run, about how he was drafted in the first place and, most significantly, that the best chance Republicans had to defeat Pritzker may have already slipped through their fingers.

“This is the biggest debacle I’ve ever seen. It’s the biggest screw-up I’ve ever seen and the biggest waste of money I’ve ever seen,” said former Illinois Republican Party Chair Pat Brady, who is doing communications work for candidate Gary Rabine. 

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker attends the 51st Chicago Pride Parade on June 26, 2022. (Jon Durr / AP)
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker attends the 51st Chicago Pride Parade on June 26, 2022. (Jon Durr / AP)

Darren Bailey, a Trump-supporting conservative from a rural downstate town, took a comfortable lead in the primary weeks ago, according to a Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ poll that showed him leading among Republicans downstate and in the Chicago suburbs. Trump’s endorsement at a weekend rally in west-central Illinois most likely gives Bailey an even healthier bump among MAGA primary voters who dominate the vote outside the Chicago metropolitan area and suburbs.

“It’s the most epic political failure of all time,” state Rep. Blaine Wilhour, a conservative who supports Bailey, said of the party’s early move to coalesce around Irvin. “It’s a total repudiation of the political establishment from the voters.”

A number of Republicans said in interviews that a Bailey victory could mean the party has little chance of winning in November, however. Irvin’s campaign was the target of Democratic meddling by both national Democrats and Pritzker himself, who put up aggressively negative ads against Irvin as he ran unopposed for his party’s nomination — a tacit acknowledgment that Irvin most likely presents the biggest general election threat.

“If Darren Bailey does come through on Tuesday, J.B. Pritzker can actively start his campaign for president — he doesn’t even need to be in Illinois,” said a state Republican who supported Irvin, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

Pritzker, who recently visited New Hampshire and is more visible on the national political scene, is among those speculated to be interested in running in 2024, although he has said he’s interested only in the governor’s job right now.

The Irvin campaign declined to comment on the criticism and second-guessing by other Republicans. It highlighted the deluge of money Democrats pumped into the primary, calling it unprecedented and holding it up as evidence of his potential as a potent general election candidate.

“Richard Irvin’s strong record as a tough-on-crime prosecutor, combat veteran and mayor has the Democrats running scared as Pritzker and his Democrat allies are on track to spend the most money in a Republican primary in the history of our nation,” Irvin spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said. “If what the armchair quarterbacks are saying is true, then J.B. Pritzker and national democrats wouldn’t have spent an unprecedented $35 million meddling in a Republican primary."

In total, TV ad spending by all parties from January of last year through Monday — including the DGA, Pritzker and any GOP gubernatorial candidates on air — totaled at least $100 million, according to AdImpact, an ad analytics firm.

Illinois gubernatorial hopeful Darren Bailey speaks after receiving an endorsement from former President Donald Trump on June 25, 2022, in Mendon, Ill. (Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images)
Illinois gubernatorial hopeful Darren Bailey speaks after receiving an endorsement from former President Donald Trump on June 25, 2022, in Mendon, Ill. (Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images)

Irvin was drafted to run for governor last year with the promise of financial backing from the wealthiest man in the state, Kenneth Griffin, the founder of the hedge fund Citadel. Griffin tapped veteran operative Mike Zolnierowicz, with whom he had previously worked, with the job of drafting a candidate and then sketching out the campaign.

Irvin had a compelling personal story as a descendant of a slave and as the first from his family to graduate from college. He leads the second-largest city in Illinois, and he had the potential to appeal to a cross-section of voters in a general election, said several Republicans familiar with the push. Republicans haven’t won the governorship in Illinois since 2014, but President Joe Biden’s tanking poll numbers, inflation and rising gas prices added up to what Republicans thought could be their best opportunity in a year already expected to favor their party.

But first Irvin had to get through the primary, and Trump almost immediately complicated things. Irvin dodged question after question about whether he supported the former president. Last month, WTTW, a Chicago TV station, published text messages that left no question about his feelings for Trump.

“And I hate Trump too!” Irvin wrote in the texts, according to the report. “He’s an idiot!!!” Irvin added: “and a bigoted racist.”

Some Republicans have blamed Irvin’s campaign for not anticipating the Democratic playbook of meddling that has been run in other states, including Pennsylvania. Several who had interactions with the campaign questioned whether Irvin was fully vetted. One devastating negative ad after another, all run by Democrats, exposed potential deal breakers for Republican primary voters — including the fact that Irvin voted in Democratic primaries in 2014, 2016 and 2020.

There are signs that the Democratic meddling knocked Irvin off his game. According to AdImpact, from Jan. 1 through the end of March, the most-aired Irvin ads were biography spots.

By March 31, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) had begun running attack ads against Irvin. From April 1 through mid-June, Irvin’s top two most aired ads were responding to attacks leveled in ads funded by Pritzker or Democrats, according to AdImpact. At the same time, Republican financier Richard Uihlein steered more than $16 million — to Bailey himself and to a supportive outside PAC — that helped pay for ads boosting Bailey and piling on Irvin.

According to AdImpact, the Pritzker campaign spent a staggering $32 million on TV ads in a primary in which he was unopposed, with the bulk of the spending targeting Irvin, and the Democratic Governors Association spent $18.4 million more.

Brady, the former state GOP chair, accused Zolnierowicz of using a closed, secretive process when he recruited Irvin as the party’s preferred candidate and of intimidating Republicans if they waffled with getting on board, by telling them it would be considered “bad behavior” and suggesting that future support for them could be cut off. The Irvin campaign did not comment on Brady’s allegations.

“This was so bad and so arrogant and so deceitful to Republican voters what Mike Z did running this,” Brady said, referring to Zolnierowicz, who was chief of staff to the last Republican governor, Bruce Rauner.If you’re a Republican, you should be furious with these guys.”

Brady said the effort to recruit Irvin should have involved a broader segment of Republicans who were instead shut out. During Rauner’s 2014 campaign, Brady worked with and counted as personal friends many of the same people now working on Irvin’s team.

Much of the team running the Irvin campaign, including Zolnierowicz, also worked on Mark Kirk’s GOP Senate victory in 2010. And in 2020, the same team was successful in defeating a Pritzker-backed referendum that would have changed Illinois’ income tax from a flat tax to a graduated income tax. Griffin, who had long fiercely opposed the tax change, stunned Chicago business leaders and political insiders last week when he announced he was moving his hedge fund, Citadel, out of Chicago to Florida.

Some Republicans privately criticized Brady, saying he was letting personal feelings get in the way because the Irvin team selected a slate of Republicans it would back that excluded Brady’s cousin, Dan Brady, who is seeking the nomination for secretary of state Tuesday.

Several Republicans agreed with Brady that the Irvin campaign had operated in a heavy-handed manner, including aggressively pushing Republicans to get on board with its slate of candidates no matter their past allegiances. But they chalked it up to politics.

“This is nothing new. Someone always feels left out and snubbed,” said an influential Republican who backs Irvin and wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “This isn’t powder puff. This isn’t a gentleman’s duel. The state of campaigns are completely different than what they were 20 years ago.”

Wilhour said the issues plaguing Irvin’s candidacy illustrated how out of touch the party is with its base.

“That’s how tone-deaf the Republican Party in the state of Illinois has been,” Wilhour said. “They were so tone-deaf on this thing they thought the only chance they had of winning was to become more like Democrats.”