Suburban Republicans backing primary challenger Jeanne Ives in her bid to unseat Gov. Bruce Rauner are defending the Wheaton lawmaker who faces intense criticism for a television ad that state party leaders and Rauner allies have denounced as racist and homophobic.

Lawmakers on Saturday stood by their endorsements of Ives amid the backlash over the statewide ad that began airing this weekend, but suggested the spot would provide campaign fodder for her opponents who cast Ives as a divisive social conservative and a longshot in the March primary.

The ad shows a man wearing a hoodie and a bandanna across his face, thanking Rauner for "opposing law enforcement and making Illinois a sanctuary state for illegal immigrant criminals."

"Thank you for signing legislation that lets me use the girl's bathroom," says another man, who is wearing a red dress in the ad.

State Rep. Barb Wheeler, a Crystal Lake Republican, called the ad cringe-worthy and ridiculous. She said Ives still has her vote, but urged her messages to stick to what Wheeler considers her political strengths as a fiscal policy wonk.

"I have been in the General Assembly with her since 2013. And if I believed in my heart of hearts that she was a racist or a hater, I wouldn't have supported her in the first place," Wheeler said. "She is right on the issues. I don't always agree with the way she messages."

Wheeling Township Republican Committeeman Ruth O'Connell argued the ad appeals to Ives' conservative base.

"It is going to create talk, and the ad will bring the attention to the voters, and I think a lot of them care about the issues she covered in the ad," she said.

Illinois Republican Party Chairman and Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider called on Ives to pull the ad and apologize to the "Illinoisans who were negatively portrayed in a cowardly attempt to stoke political division."

"There is no place in the Illinois Republican Party for rhetoric that attacks our fellow Illinoisans based on their race, gender or humanity. Representative Ives' campaign ad does not reflect who we are as the Party of Lincoln and as proud residents of our great and diverse state," Schneider of Bartlett said in a statement.

The Ives' campaign dismissed Schneider's statement, calling the Illinois GOP an arm of Rauner's campaign because the organization is almost entirely funded by Rauner, a wealthy former private equity investor.

"Rauner betrayed Illinois conservatives. He and his paid-for mouthpieces don't like his betrayals being illustrated and his radical left-wing social agenda being exposed," campaign spokeswoman Kathleen Murphy said.

Rauner signed a bill last year making it easier for transgender people to change the gender listed on their birth certificates. He has not signed a bill on restroom access for transgender individuals.

The release of the ad comes as Rauner and Ives battle for endorsements in the suburbs. The Cook County Republican Central Committee votes on Monday on who to back in the gubernatorial race.

Aaron Del Mar, committee deputy chairman, said he "was on the fence" until the ad aired, but now will be supporting Rauner.

"I had a tremendous amount of respect for Ms. Ives for her fight in Illinois, but I cannot get behind anybody who releases that ad," Del Mar said.

He also suggested the ad would do political damage to the state party. "I think it puts Republicans in a very very poor light. I think it's the most offensive ad I've ever seen," said Del Mar, a former Cook County GOP chairman.

State Rep. Tom Morrison, a Palatine Republican, said the ad was "jarring," but meant to "stimulate conversation."

"That's what campaigns are about," said Morrison, an Ives supporter. "It's discussing candidates. It's discussing issues, and I think this ad will spark some discussions on specific bills cited in the ad."

• Daily Herald staff writer Steve Zalusky and The Associated Press contributed to this report.