Was it Trump? How Darren Bailey won the GOP primary - and the suburbs - to face Pritzker

Farmer and GOP nominee for governor Darren Bailey has been planting the seeds of his landslide victory in the suburbs for months.

From breakfast with Schaumburg Republicans Feb. 26 to a meet and greet at a Winfield pub April 13 to a Baptist church service in Lake Zurich May 1, the conservative Christian state senator has worked the metro region hard.

And in Tuesday's primary, Bailey won suburban Cook and the collar counties, thwarting early expectations that Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, a moderate, would be the Republican nominee.

The senator also captured nearly 60% of Republican votes cast, according to unofficial results.

Why Bailey? Outside a polling station in Lisle, voter Ralph H. Peterson explained his choice. "He's more conservative ... like I am, and I think we need a change especially in Illinois," Peterson said.

The Xenia resident sued the state over COVID-19 masks in 2020, opposes abortion and was endorsed by former President Donald Trump on Saturday, which electrified many in the base. But how will Bailey play in blue-state Illinois come the general election?

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker is upbeat about his reelection bid.

"Frankly, I'm very optimistic about our prospects at the moment," Pritzker said Wednesday in an interview.

"Democrats are trying to fight for a women's right to choose, and in a moment when Donald Trump is trying to impose himself into Illinois politics and clearly has by helping to nominate the most extreme Republican, it's important for we Democrats to fight back."

Bailey has made crime a central issue, calling Chicago a "hellhole" at a debate. In a speech to cheering supporters Tuesday, he pivoted to a more general audience.

"Tonight your voices were finally heard - voices from the farms, the suburbs, the city of Chicago and every place in between. Let's hear it for Chicago.

"Do you feel overtaxed? Do you feel overregulated? Are you tired of being ignored by Springfield? Friends, I hear you because I am you. It's that simple," Bailey said.

"Billionaires like J.B. Pritzker can't relate to the struggles of working people and taxpayers like you and I. He doesn't understand how skyrocketing gas prices and soaring food prices have made everyday life harder for Illinois families like you and I."

Bailey beat out five opponents in the primary, but much of the focus was on Irvin.

How did Irvin, a former prosecutor and veteran whose great-grandfather was a slave, fail to sell a compelling story?

"I think the main reason Mayor Irvin fell short was the governor and his party paid $50 million to make sure the weakest Republican candidate wins the primary," Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said. He referenced ad buys involving Pritkzer and the Democratic Governors Association that called Bailey "too conservative" for Illinois.

The tactic intentionally whipped up enthusiasm among GOP base voters for Bailey.

Other veteran Republicans pointed to a $50 million miscalculation by Citadel Corp. owner Ken Griffin, Irvin's most generous contributor.

A team of Griffin-bankrolled Republican professionals, some previous top aides to Gov. Bruce Rauner, groomed a slate of candidates for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and comptroller.

But the top-down approach was a turnoff, said Republican State Central Committee member Bob Grogan of Downers Grove. "Grassroots voters like to have a choice. They don't like being given a fait accompli (as in), here's the answer to all your questions you haven't even asked yet."

Along with Irvin, the candidates Griffin supported for secretary of state and attorney general lost their races.

"It's the biggest debacle, screw-up and waste of money I've ever seen," former Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady said, adding he wasn't blaming Irvin or Griffin but the hired guns.

As for Bailey, he's got an uphill battle given Illinois voters typically pick moderate Republican governors, Brady said.

"I think his message is pretty good - people are upset about crime in the state, they're upset about taxes. The problem is, is he the best messenger?"

Yes, said Bailey supporter and former state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Wheaton conservative who came close to beating Rauner in the 2018 primary.

This year Illinois' primary was switched to June instead of the traditional March date, and "the long campaign helped Darren because he worked tirelessly to connect with everyone around the state. That takes time. So when the lies started, enough people had met him already to repel their impact," Ives said.

Meanwhile, "I think conservatives came out in droves supporting candidate Bailey, and I believe most of that is driven by blowback over the progressive agenda Democrats have been driving in Springfield over the last few years," Republican state Sen. Don DeWitte of St. Charles said.

Some suburban voters such as Peterson also pointed to Bailey's running mate, Stephanie Trussell, a Lisle resident and former talk radio host, as the reason they gravitated to him.

Trussell was new to politics, but "she learned a lot and she won the rooms she walked into," Grogan said.

Pritzker said he expected Democrats to recover from a less spectacularly bitter but still bruising primary for some.

"Primaries are always rough and tumble. We Democrats get together in the end to support each other in the general election," he said.

Regarding the ad buys, "the important thing is to make sure we're contrasting what Democrats stand for versus Republicans. They nominate an extreme pro-Trump Republican who wants to divide Chicago into a separate state ... so it's important that I tell people who I am and who my opponent is - just as Republicans do."

Regarding rumors he might consider a run for president, Pritzker said he is "focused on reelection."

"I love this job," he said. "The governor of Illinois is the greatest job anyone can have."

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker waves while leaving Manny's Deli in Chicago on Tuesday, Illinois' primary day. Associated Press
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