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Establishment Republicans distance themselves from Bailey, who blasts Pritzker’s ‘soft billionaire hands’ at ILGOP rally day

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Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois
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GOP gubernatorial nominee Darren Bailey rallies the crowd at the annual Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair.

Under a blazing sun and in front of hundreds of Republican Party faithful on the Illinois State Fairgrounds Thursday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey stayed away from any explicit mention of the types of social issues that are classic red meat for his ultra-conservative voter base.

Instead of invoking abortion, critical race theory, the LGBT community’s influence on the wider culture or even gun rights, Bailey steered clear of the word “woke” while sticking to core “kitchen table” themes like public safety and inflation during his Republican Day speech. Bailey, a state senator from rural Xenia, nodded to Illinois’ cultural divides mostly by slamming Gov. JB Pritzker’s inherited wealth.

Read more: ‘Ours is the real patriotism’: Dems go on attack against ‘lunatic fringe’ GOP at state fair rally

“On Tuesday, I milked a cow,” Bailey told the crowd at the state fair’s traditional Republican Day rally. “Last week JB Pritzker, he took a picture with the butter cow. Now don't get me wrong, the butter cow is amazing…It's a work of art. But JB and his soft billionaire hands were safely on the other side of that protective glass, far from the work, kind of like in his billionaire bubble.”

Bailey made his grand entrance to the Director’s Lawn on a tractor, though the farm equipment joy ride was mostly for the benefit of reporters and photographers while the majority of the crowd remained in line for their lunch of barbecue and beer.

Bailey’s speech was toned down compared with what he told a much more stratified group of “parental rights” activists two days earlier, when he said he’d prioritize eliminating “critical race theory” and “egregious” sex education standards from Illinois schools at a small rally organized by a group that called Pritzker a “groomer” earlier this summer.

Read more: Bailey courts ‘parental rights’ voters with activist group that called Pritzker a ‘groomer’

The spiciest Bailey got on Thursday was calling Chicago a “hellhole” — twice — to illustrate how far he believed the “once-great” city had fallen, citing both the perennial political challenge of public corruption as well as a rise in violent crime during the pandemic.

But despite Bailey’s controlled performance on Thursday, establishment Republicans haven’t forgotten the rhetoric that won the farmer-turned-legislator their party’s nomination to face Gov. JB Pritzker in November, but isn’t likely to win him much support in reliably blue Illinois. And those establishment Republicans aren’t giving any full-throated endorsements to Bailey any time soon after their preferred candidate, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, garnered only 15% of the GOP vote in the June primary election, despite a $50 million investment from hedge fund manager and Republican mega-donor Ken Griffin.

House GOP Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs), for example, was one of only a handful of Republican leaders in Illinois who earlier this month condemned Bailey’s newly unearthed comments from a 2017 video where he compared abortion to the Holocaust. Durkin on Thursday refused to expressly say whether he supported Bailey as his party’s nominee, telling reporters only that he “support[s] the ticket” of Republican candidates in November.

Asked whether he was worried that Bailey’s ultra-conservative views and penchant for gaffes — may cost Republicans the opportunity to capture seats that are much more winnable than the governor’s mansion, Durkin demurred, pivoting to the record number of GOP candidates running for the Illinois House this election cycle.

But after pointing to the “growing independent voter” category in Illinois, Durkin addressed the question a of whether Bailey might drag down the Republican ticket a little more head-on.

“We’ll find out in November,” Durkin said.

Campaigning on corruption, crime and cashflow — or culture and conspiracies?

Durkin didn’t mention Bailey’s name once during his brief speeches to the party faithful at back-to-back events on Thursday, a move repeated by his counterpart in the Illinois Senate, GOP Leader Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods), along with nearly every other Republican candidates for statewide office who spoke Thursday.

The only exception to that rule was Tom DeVore, a lawyer that rose to prominence in 2020 when he represented Bailey in a lawsuit that briefly made the then-state representative the only Illinoisan exempt from Pritzker’s early COVID-era stay-at-home orders. Though that legal victory was short-lived and largely symbolic before the ruling was reversed, DeVore became a sort of celebrity in conservative circles as anger grew over the governor’s use of executive power during the pandemic.

To date, DeVore has filed hundreds of lawsuits related to Pritzker’s COVID restrictions with varying degrees of success; his biggest legal win came in February when a Sangamon County judge temporarily struck down Pritzker’s mask mandate in schools, setting off a domino effect ultimately ending masking in most school districts.

Like other Republicans, DeVore name-checked Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx when talking about crime in Chicago, panning her progressive prosecutorial policies that her critics in law enforcement — and even her own office — claim emboldens criminals who aren’t charged for low-level offenses or when evidence doesn’t meet a certain threshold.

DeVore called Foxx “a lapdog of George Soros,” referring to the Hungarian-born American businessman and progressive philanthropist who’s the subject of a collection of right-wing conspiracies that paint Soros as a sort of global puppet master who uses his wealth to orchestrate everything from migrant crises to the mass shooting at Majorie Stonemason Douglas High School in 2018 in order to gin up support for gun control.

“You make me attorney general and if Kim Foxx won’t prosecute [arrestees], I will,” DeVore said to cheers from the crowd. “And she better get to prosecuting or we’ll figure out a way to prosecute her.”

Painting Democrats as corrupt criminals has long been a GOP tactic in Illinois, made easier by the litany of politicians who’ve been investigated, prosecuted and convicted on public corruption charges in the last century. Though the list is heavy with Democrats, many Republicans have also been brought down by the feds.

“The Democrat Machine is not in it for you or anybody in these grounds,” Durkin told the crowd, calling Democrats the “party of federally indicted Mike Madigan,” referring to the former longtime House Speaker.

“They're in it for themselves,” Durkin continued. “Quite frankly, the Democrats have been too busy getting busted for corruption and briberies that they forgot about everybody else in the state of Illinois.”

Republicans aside from Durkin, a former Cook County prosecutor, weren’t so keen on addressing another federal criminal investigation — that of former President Donald Trump. In the wake of the FBI’s raid of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort home in West Palm Beach, Fla. last week, prominent far-right elected officials began calls to “defund the FBI,” with Illinois’ own Congresswoman Mary Miller (R-Oakland) calling the Department of Justice the “Deep State DOJ [that] hates President Trump.”

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy sidestepped the question about Trump on Thursday, saying only that the ILGOP is a “big tent” party.

“We have people that love President Trump. We have Republicans — good Republicans — who don’t care for President Trump,” Tracy said. “We’re going to have a great primary in 2024 and I’ll be happy to talk to you about Trump then.”

Republicans blamed President Joe Biden for inflation and Pritzker for taxes, characterizing them as a one-two punch for Illinoisans having to decide between filling up their gas tanks and putting food on the table. State Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon), the ILGOP’s nominee for state treasurer, believed the pocketbook pinch could even entice Democratic voters to cross the aisle and vote for Republicans this fall, using Democratic Treasurer Mike Frerichs’ 2020 gaffe hinting at taxing retirement income in Illinois against him.

Demmer is one of two statewide GOP candidates from the Griffin-funded “slate” of six mainstream Republicans led by Irvin. Griffin, who last year said he’d spend any amount of money to defeat Pritzker, is moving to Florida and recently confirmed he will not help fund Bailey’s campaign this fall.

Tracy on Thursday didn’t shy away from talking about his party’s struggles to raise money — especially when compared the millions Pritzker has already spent and will continue to lavish on Democrats.

“It’s a real loss for the Republican Party and for Illinois,” Tracy told reporters when asked about Griffin’s departure from Illinois Republican politics. “It’s going to be hard to replace his donations but if you rely too much on one donor, then if that donor leaves for whatever reason, whether it’s Gov. Rauner or Ken Griffin, your donations atrophy.”

But in rousing the crowd on Thursday, Tracy branded the ILGOP as the no longer the party of the “fat cats that were supporting us — the old Republican Party,” but rather “the party of working families,” as he claimed big money had moved to the other side of the aisle.

Bailey’s running mate, former conservative radio personality Stephanie Trussell, also poked fun at Pritzker’s wealth while drawing attention to the rise in crime and poverty she’s seen in her native neighborhood on Chicago’s west side since moving to the suburbs nearly three decades ago. Trussell blamed Democrats for not addressing — or even worsening — conditions in predominantly Black neighborhoods, many of which contain food deserts and have seen their communities’ small independent businesses disappear.

“That's the climate change that we’re worried about,” Trussell said, laughing that Pritzker had gone to a climate change summit in Scotland late last year. “But at least we know [Pritzker’s] saving the planet by flying around in his private jet…we all feel better about that.”

Newly unearthed social media posts from Trussell put her in the hot seat earlier this week after WGN reported on her criticism of politicians who support the so-called “gay agenda,” and referring to Planned Parenthood as “Klanned Parenthood.”

Earlier this week, Trussell dubbed her old posts a distraction from real issues but doubled down on her nickname for Planned Parenthood, and on Thursday told reporters her anti-abortion stance stems from her experience as a Black woman.

“When they put abortion clinics in our communities to target Blacks more than any other community, you want talk about that?” Trussell said. “You want to break those numbers down? Talking about what’s disproportionately hurting people? You don’t want to talk about that with me.”

Trussell, who lives in Lisle, referred to herself a few times on Thursday as a "suburban housewife." But her adopted DuPage County, which was once a bastion of reliable GOP politics, has turned blue in recent election cycles, and Democrats this year are banking on suburban women in Illinois and beyond to buck early predictions of a Republican wave year in 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this summer.

Hannah covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at outlets including WILL-AM/FM, Law360, The Daily Line and a temporary stint at political blog Capitol Fax before returning to the station in 2020.
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