After decades of trying, the Illinois GOP’s pro-family, pro-gun, pro-life conservative wing finally has the victory it long has sought in Darren Bailey’s rout of party establishment favorite Richard Irvin in the gubernatorial primary. Some past GOP nominees may have come close, but Bailey is the real deal for the hard right and everyone knows it.
But like the proverbial dog who finally caught the fire truck, what are the populist masses going to do with it in a state that remains overwhelmingly Democratic? In particular, can Bailey & Co. patch things up with the party’s business wing, which, despite its steady loss of influence in recent years, still pays the bills—even Bailey’s, as in the $17 million he got from packaging billionaire Richard Uihlein.
Let’s start with the positive.
Even with Uihlein’s help—and even bigger intervention from incumbent Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker—the conservatives won, and sheer winning sometimes breeds its own inertia. “Establishment politicians thought they could dictate to the rest of us,” crows former state Rep. Jeanne Ives, who almost beat then-incumbent GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner in the primary four years ago. “They got it wrong.”
“There is a path to victory in November, absolutely, 100%,” adds Ives. The key in her view is to talk about “core issues that matter to voters.” That’s not abortion and other hot-button issues that Pritzker will seek to focus on, but school choice, high taxes, government mismanagement, corporate exits (Boeing and Caterpillar) and a flawed energy bill that passed on Pritzker’s watch.
Similar advice comes from two-time gubernatorial candidate Kirk Dillard, whose politics are sharply different from Ives’ but whose bottom line is similar: Talk about crime and other kitchen-table issues, he counsels. “In this environment, with (President) Joe Biden’s low approval numbers, anything is possible,” especially if Bailey spends most of the campaign working Chicago’s suburbs.
Less optimistic is megafundraiser Ron Gidwitz, a card-carrying corporate moderate who served as Donald Trump’s ambassador to Belgium.
“My guess is that that the Republican donor class is basically going to wait and see what Dick Uihlein says” before opening its wallet, he predicts. Will Gidwitz open his wallet? “I don’t know Mr. Bailey,” he replies. “Right now, I am finance co-chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. I am going to focus on that.”
Indeed, the lack of money could hobble Bailey before he gets started. Pritzker is already airing ads in an effort to define Bailey as a Trump acolyte who’s too extreme to trust, much as Jim Edgar defined general election foe Dawn Clark Netsch in the leftward direction a generation ago. It won’t help Bailey that he’s given Pritzker plenty of material work with—or that the days when the state party’s nominee could get a big check from Citadel owner Ken Griffin are over.
Bailey’s team is aware of that concern and has taken some steps to deal with it. For instance, the same outspoken conservatism that has turned off some of the corporate guys could be a real boost in getting lots of money in small chunks on the internet, which smiles on loudly declared views. Bailey also appears to have decided to keep Illinois GOP Chairman Don Tracy on the job instead of moving to dump him for his own candidate, as often happens. Tracy was in Effingham for Bailey’s election night party and the gesture was noted. “If he’ll work with us, we’ll work with him,” says one insider.
It also will help that, like Pritzker, Bailey has an affable manner that will play well with many voters. And that a huge red tide nationally surely will at least lap at Illinois’ shores.
Still, even this year, Bailey almost certainly is going to have to attack the middle if he wants to win. No more barbs like how Chicago is a “hellhole.” And if he’s going to win, Bailey’s base is going to have to let him do the things it takes to win.
Bottom line: The Illinois GOP has new owners, at least for now. We’ll see if they can do any better than the old crew against long odds.
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July 6, 2022 at 07:18AM