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Republican candidate for governor Darren Bailey struggles to unite his party

Republican candidate for the Illinois gubernatorial race Darren Bailey speaks at a podium.
Ashlee Rezin
/
Chicago Sun Times
State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, speaks at an election night rally at the Thelma Keller Convention Center in Effingham after winning the Republican gubernatorial primary election on June 28. Since that win, public support from major GOP donors and backers hasn't surfaced.

One month after staging a primary upset, Republican Darren Bailey is laboring to reel in supporters of a top Republican primary rival and has yet to log a six- or seven-figure campaign contribution in his fall fight against billionaire Gov. JB Pritzker.

Compounding Bailey’s struggles, hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin, who put $50 million into the failed candidacy of Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, doesn’t intend to write any checks to the downstate Republican state senator in his battle to unseat the Democratic governor.

“Ken will not be backing Darren Bailey,” Griffin spokesman Zia Ahmed told WBEZ. “He believes Richard Irvin was the best candidate for governor of Illinois.”

A WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times survey of 65 Republicans across the state who were early endorsers of Irvin’s campaign found that at least some on that list appeared to share the sentiment, though some signs point to the possibility Irvin himself will endorse Bailey soon.

But only a handful from the vote-rich collar counties were willing to proclaim their support for Bailey publicly. Other past Irvin supporters spoke to WBEZ only on the condition that neither their names be used nor their disparaging comments about Bailey’s candidacy be published or aired.

Still, the senator’s campaign said it is in a strong position with Republicans around the state and that the party is coalescing around his efforts to defeat Pritzker.

“Darren Bailey won an upset victory on the primary fueled on a message of fixing our state including safer streets and a stronger economy for all. We’re very confident that we’re going to win again in November against Pritzker,” Bailey campaign spokesman Joe DeBose said.

But four months ahead of the November election, the below-the-surface grumbling and, more significantly, the lack of money represent worrisome signs for Bailey, particularly given that he hasn’t been able to get any of his own advertising on Chicago television since the primary. Pritzker, during that time, has been busily portraying his opponent in TV ads as an “extremist” on abortion and gun control.

What is certain is that Irvin had many of the state’s best-known and most influential Republicans in his corner, including Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin and Chicago businessman Ron Gidwitz, who contributed more than $110,000 to Irvin.

“Quite frankly, I’ve never met Sen. Bailey, so that’s an issue. I generally don’t support people I don’t know,” said Gidwitz, finance chair of Donald Trump’s 2020 Illinois presidential campaign and the former Trump-appointed ambassador to Belgium.

Gidwitz was an honorary co-chair of Irvin’s campaign and has deep connections to Republican donors besides being one himself. He’s the finance director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is working to restore U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell as the Senate majority leader this fall.

“JB Pritzker, before the race really got started, put $125 million in his campaign fund. And so he intends to, if necessary, spend all of that money. And therefore the question is to me, what is Sen. Bailey going to do? And how is he going to raise that money?” Gidwitz said.

Bailey reported having just under $364,000 in his campaign fund as of June 30, two days after he upset Irvin by finishing atop the six-way GOP gubernatorial field, and has reported more than $137,000 in contributions in the past four weeks. By contrast, Pritzker had nearly $61 million in his political fund at the close of June.

“We had a plan with Ken Griffin. I was quite confident with Ken’s help and with the help of other more traditional donors to the Republican Party in Illinois, we could raise the necessary money to be competitive with JB Pritzker. Obviously, that strategy is gone given that Richard Irvin unfortunately didn’t win,” Gidwitz continued. “So now the question is what’s Darren Bailey’s strategy? How’s he going to come up with $100 million to compete, and what is Dick Uihlein going to do since Ken Griffin, as far as I know, is out of the picture?”

Uihlein, the GOP mega-donor heir to the Schlitz brewing fortune and owner of the Uline shipping products company, gave more than $9 million to Bailey’s campaign between February and March, state campaign records show.

But that funding spigot shut off during the month of July, when Uihlein bypassed giving anything to Bailey’s fund but instead gave two contributions valued at a combined $20 million to a political action committee called People Who Play By The Rules.

In the primary, that fund controlled by conservative radio host Dan Proft and based in his Naples, Fla., home aired a series of ads that bashed Irvin. In July, the fund shifted its focus to advertising that hits Pritzker but without mentioning Bailey by name.

Bailey has no control over the Proft fund and hasn’t been able to afford his own post-primary advertising campaign. One analyst estimated the money in Bailey’s own fund is enough to put one ad before a Chicago television audience just six times, nowhere near what it takes for an ad to typically register with a viewer.

Gidwitz said the gubernatorial election is “only winnable if you can raise the money.”

“Unfortunately, the mother’s milk of politics, you know as well as I do, is money. And in this particular case, JB Pritzker has got lots of it. And in order to win, you have to be competitive financially. You also have to have a good story. But if you don’t have any money, there won’t be any story,” he said.

“My fear is, and we’ve seen it start already, [Pritzker’s] negatives, however good or bad they are, will be eclipsed if he can continue to beat on Darren Bailey, and Darren Bailey can’t respond,” Gidwitz said.

Calls to Uihlein at his company’s Pleasant Prairie, Wis., headquarters and to Proft went unanswered.

Beyond questions concerning Bailey’s financial viability, he appears to be struggling to win broad support from many of the GOP mainstays from the collar counties who originally flocked to Irvin’s campaign. Multiple Republicans with long records in the party declined to publicly embrace Bailey or speak about his candidacy when contacted by WBEZ.

One exception is Republican National Committeeman Richard Porter, a past co-chair of Irvin’s campaign who is now supportive of Bailey: “I am helping Darren. Team sport!”

Some on the Irvin list from downstate, where Bailey’s support is robust, also have made the switch.

“For some people, it may be difficult [to migrate toward Bailey]. It wasn’t for me,” said Kankakee County Treasurer Nick Africano, who also is chair of the Kankakee County Republican Party. “Primaries can be bruising. When they’re over, they’re over. I don’t think it benefits anybody for people to eat their own.

“He’s the winner by a large margin, and he’s our candidate,” Africano said of Bailey. “And so, we’re on board.”

But Africano said Bailey can’t ignore other Irvin supporters who haven’t embraced his candidacy.

“Strictly politically speaking, if [Bailey] can’t draw in many of those names, they don’t have a shot. Clearly, to win, it’s got to be an all-hands-on-deck situation. You absolutely have to pull in people. I think the Bailey campaign, I certainly don’t want to speak for them, I don’t think they want to compromise any of their views or perhaps even moderate any of their views. It looks to me and from what I’ve heard from the candidate, this is what got them to where they’re at. This is what they believe in,” Africano said.

“But our party has a lot of people in it. And we can’t win unless we’re unified,” he continued. “That’s for certain.”

Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Haine, another former Irvin supporter, said he is supportive of Bailey.

“I’m all for his campaign to defeat JB Pritzker. I think Pritzker has been a complete disaster for Illinois… I have much hope that Bailey can defeat him in November,” he said.

But Haine said the jury is still out on Bailey’s ability to match Pritzker dollar for dollar.

“I think that individuals who supported Irvin, respectfully, over Bailey during the primary were doing so from a practical perspective, that we didn’t think that Bailey could win statewide. And we thought that Irvin would be more suited to winning statewide and would have the resources, especially, to do so,” Haine said. “I hope to be proven wrong in that assessment, and I really hope to assist Bailey as the Republican nominee however I can.”

Illinois Republican Party chairman Don Tracy downplayed the lack of mainstream GOP support for the nominee, saying a joint fundraiser last week in Chicago for the state party with Durkin and Illinois Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie was proof of unity. The three also had a private dinner with Bailey and his wife Cindy at Le Colonial after the event.

As for the Irvin Republicans who won’t stick their necks out for Bailey, Tracy said he can’t speak to why — but offered up that “progress” is being made, including an upcoming unity event with all of the Republican primary candidates, including Irvin. Irvin’s team said the Aurora mayor signed a unity pledge from the state party confirming he would support the nominee.

“Elections are tough. I’ve run a couple of times, and I’ve lost. But you know, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and you get back and get back in the game,” Tracy said. “And in this business you support the nominee. And I think most Republicans will do that.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ, and Tina Sfondeles is chief political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @TinaSfon.