A conservative win in Illinois. Supporters at Darren Bailey’s election night party express optimism despite the mounting task of taking on Gov. J.B. Pritzker

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EFFINGHAM — Inside the civic center in downstate Effingham, a town more than 200 miles from Chicago best-known for being home to one of the largest crosses in the United States, a crowd gathered at state Sen. Darren Bailey’s election night party and embraced the victory of one of the most conservative Republican nominees for Illinois governor in generations.

The ecstatic crowd roared when a video of former President Donald Trump endorsing the GOP gubernatorial primary winner was played on a big screen. They cheered when speakers at the event celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the right to an abortion without undue government interference. They wore shirts that demanded to “Void the FOID,” referring to the firearm owners identification card. And they spoke out against regulations for gun owners.

The hundreds of Bailey supporters who gathered Tuesday night were a group of Illinoisans not often in a position to claim victory in statewide races, even in Republican primaries. Bailey, along with other statewide officials and supporters attending the event, pitched themselves as contrary to the political establishment of both parties.

“We need somebody to stand for us,” said Valinda Rowe of White County, adding she was “very displeased” with Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s performance the past three-plus years as the state’s chief executive.

The event — held in a town near Bailey’s hometown of Xenia that is known for the nearly 200-foot tall “The Cross at the Crossroads,” that looms over an intersection of highways — was marked with references to God, guns, harsh measures to reduce crime and other talking points often associated with highly conservative politics.

Bailey supporters said they disagreed with Pritzker on nearly every issue and were tired of the status quo, which many say stems from longtime leadership of Chicago Democrats.

Many said they supported Bailey because he fought Pritzker on COVID-19 measures meant to mitigate the spread of the virus. They also liked his positions opposing abortion and favoring gun rights.

“I am totally for life,” said Robin Shellenbarger, a school bus driver from Herrick, referring to an abortion ban in Illinois. “I believe he would be closer to it than anyone else.”

Some said they were optimistic Bailey could prevail in the Nov. 8 general election despite the challenges of a contender with such a deeply conservative platform for governor of a blue state.

“We’re going to send the message to the political establishment on both sides of the party that the Republican Party is the party of the people,” said state Rep. Blaine Wilhour of Beecher City. Wilhour was one of nine legislators who earlier this year were voted off the House floor for refusing to wear masks in the midst of the pandemic and in compliance with House rules at the time.

As the polls closed at 7 p.m., supporters sung the national anthem and said the Pledge of Allegiance. While attendees waited for news, they watched video of Trump’s endorsement of Bailey, which occurred a few days earlier at a rally outside Quincy.

Asked whether the former president’s endorsement influenced their decision, many supporters said they had already decided, but some called it a plus.

As news outlets called the race for Bailey, members of the crowd grew louder, cheering and chanting “Bailey, Bailey” and “We want Bailey.”

In a speech that framed Pritzker as a billionaire political elite out of touch with Illinoisans, Bailey drew cheers from the crowd when he hit talking points on a number of far-right issues, including fears of critical race theory in school, crime and lockdowns and mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Renee Koehne of Collinsville said Bailey is for the same “godly principles” she is. She said she is anti-abortion and against the COVID mitigation measures the state implemented during the last two years.

“I think everyone is ready for a change that’s conservative,” she said.

mbuckley@chicagotribune.com

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June 29, 2022 at 05:10AM

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