The night before he won the Republican nomination for governor, state senator Darren Bailey held a “Fire Pritzker” rally at the Des Plaines Theatre. It was the last stop on his campaign’s 102-county tour of Illinois. A hundred and fifty or so blue-jeaned baby boomers in “Bailey-Trussell” and “Mama Bears for Bailey” T-shirts clustered in front of the art deco stage.
Bailey’s followers weren’t just angry at his general election opponent, Governor J.B. Pritzker, whom they called a “tyrant” for shutting down businesses during the COVID outbreak; they were mad at the Illinois Republican Party for decades of compromising with Democrats on guns, taxes, and abortion. When Pritzker’s predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, signed a bill expanding public funding of abortions in 2017, that felt to them like the final stab in the back from the GOP establishment. In Bailey, they had a candidate who would “make Illinois great again.” At the Des Plaines rally, he railed against Republican legislators who collaborated with Pritzker to double the state’s gas tax. “The Illinois Republican Party leadership, they’re a Republican problem,” Bailey said to rowdy applause.
Such dissatisfaction with the party is what drew Bob Kelsey, a retired union pipe fitter from Berwyn, to the event. “There’s been such a history of corruption,” he told me. “People are tired of it. They want conservative, Constitution-believing patriots, not globalist, corporatist RINOs” — an acronym for “Republicans in Name Only.”
That’s what they’re getting in Bailey. A farmer from Clay County, in the state’s ultraconservative “Eastern Bloc,” he raffled off an AR-15 as a campaign fundraiser and was kicked out of a legislative session for refusing to wear a mask. In downstate style, he sports a crewcut and pronounces the state’s name “ELL-i-noy” in a South Midland twang. In a Facebook video, Bailey and his wife, Cindy, spoke in front of Effingham’s 198-foot-tall cross, praying to heal Illinois from “wicked and failed leadership.” Bailey wants to cancel public funding for abortions and restore parental notification. Most significantly, he was endorsed by Donald Trump.
Bailey’s devotion to conservative principles means he has little chance of fulfilling his mission to fire Pritzker. The day after the primary, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a national political forecaster, updated the governor’s race from “likely Democrat” to “safe Democrat.” But Bailey doesn’t need to win the governorship for his campaign to succeed; he’s already achieved a victory by demolishing the suburban moderates who have long defined Illinois Republicanism. Bailey got 57 percent of the vote; Aurora mayor Richard Irvin, who received $50 million from his Pygmalion, the billionaire financier Ken Griffin, got only 15 percent.
Irvin was groomed to be the latest in a succession of middle-of-the-road Republican governors: Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar, George Ryan, and Rauner. But that brand of Republicanism no longer appeals to the party’s voters, says David Smith of Illinois Family Action, a traditional-values PAC that endorsed Bailey. In the era of Trump, both parties are polarizing. Compromise is out. Conviction is in. “In my lifetime and my activism, I cannot remember a serious conservative Republican being nominated to go against the liberal Democrats,” Smith says. “Trump showed us that you can fight for what you believe in.”
Trump won 40 percent of the vote in Illinois in 2020, which may be the ceiling for a candidate trying to emulate him. On primary night, Edgar told NBC-5, “If the party continues its move to the right, we will be a permanent minority party in Illinois.” Smith believes the ex-governor, who supports abortion rights, could not win his party’s nomination today.
Moderates such as Edgar are relics of an era when state parties reflected local attitudes. The modern parties’ ideologies have been “nationalized,” says John Jackson of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University: A MAGA Republican in Illinois thinks like a MAGA Republican in Alabama. As the parties have realigned along cultural issues, rather than economics, southern Illinois has replaced suburbia as the heartland of Illinois Republicanism.
All up and down the Republican ballot, rural conservatives defeated establishment candidates. In the 15th Congressional District, U.S. representative Mary Miller, who earned Trump’s endorsement by objecting to the 2020 electoral count, beat fellow incumbent Rodney Davis, who voted to accept the results. Thomas DeVore of Greenville, who tattooed “Freedom” and “Liberty” on his forearms, won the nomination for attorney general over international business attorney Steve Kim of Deerfield.
This shift will pose a problem in November for state GOP candidates, particularly in Chicago’s outlying areas, says Jackson: “Republicans are going to have a very difficult time winning any of the constitutional offices. In some of these suburban districts, Bailey’s going to be a terrible drag on what could be competitive races and what could potentially be a big Republican year.”
Naturally, House Republican leader Jim Durkin, whose southwest suburban district runs from Hinsdale to Lockport, disagrees with that assessment. He is encouraging fellow GOP candidates to set aside hot-button social issues like abortion and gun control and run on “kitchen table” matters such as crime and inflation. “The economy is going to prevail as the single greatest issue in the suburbs and collar counties,” he says.
A moderate who voted to increase the gas tax, Durkin is the pro-Bailey crowd’s model of a RINO. “Much to the dislike of the far right, I don’t have flames coming out of my nose and mouth,” he says. Durkin supports the nominee, but as he sees it, Bailey won a primary, not the soul of the Illinois GOP. “The conservatives and the far left were the majority of voters who came out [for the primary];” in the general election, he says, it’s the middle that will determine outcomes. “I wholeheartedly believe there is a voice for moderates in the party. That’s what we see in the suburbs, and that’s what we need to compete statewide. I’m looking for legislators who are not going to be the party of no.”
That may still be true in the suburbs, but statewide, “the establishment is knocked back on its heels,” Jackson says. “The party from Jim Thompson to Jim Edgar to George Ryan has lost that control of the Republican Party.” And those Republicans will have to take their party back before Illinois elects another Republican governor.