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Election officials to weigh whether Darren Bailey and GOP operative Dan Proft illegally coordinated

Two men sitting in a room during a gubernatorial campaign meeting, focusing intently. One has shoulder-length hair and wears a blue shirt, the other sports glasses and a suit with a red tie.
Andrew Adams
Capitol News Illinois
Conservative political operative Dan Proft (left) listens to testimony from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey (right) in a hearing over allegations that the two illegally coordinated messaging campaigns in 2022.

A year and a half after Republican Darren Bailey lost his campaign to challenge Gov. JB Pritzker, state election officials are weighing whether he illegally colluded with conservative radio show host and political operative Dan Proft in the 2022 campaign.

The State Board of Elections on Monday convened a hearing on the matter, launched in a complaint by a top official with the state’s Democratic party in the waning days of the 2022 campaign cycle. The complaint alleges Proft’s independent expenditure committee – the “People Who Play By The Rules PAC” – coordinated with Bailey, violating both state and federal law.

If the board finds that the two organizations did illegally coordinate, Proft’s organization and Bailey’s campaign could be on the hook for millions of dollars in fines.

During Monday’s hearing, David Fox, an attorney for Democratic Party of Illinois Executive Director Ben Hardin, who lodged the complaint, painted a picture of illegal campaign coordination via a secret meeting, use of campaign footage in advertisements and Bailey’s appearances on Proft’s AM radio show.

"Mr. Bailey directly told Mr. Proft what message he wanted to get out. And Mr. Proft's PAC then released multiple ads on that message,” Fox said. “A straightforward request and response. It happened in public but that makes no difference.”

Proft, who still co-hosts his “Chicago’s Morning Answer” morning drive-time radio show despite his relocation to Naples, Florida, made the trip back to Chicago for the hearing. During Monday morning’s show, Proft confirmed to co-host Amy Jacobson that the hearing happened to fall on his birthday, and that he’d be celebrating “in Illinois State Board of Elections prison.”

“I don’t care. You know, you just have to deal with this specious lawfare from fraudsters like Mark Elias representing fraudsters like Jelly Belly Pritzker,” Proft said, referring to Democratic attorney Mark Elias, whose firm employs the DPI attorneys handling the case, and using a derogatory nickname for Pritzker.

During the hearing, Hardin’s lawyers described a meeting between Proft and Bailey that took place the day after Bailey won the Illinois Republican primary in June 2022. On that day, Bailey traveled to a Chicago-area country club where he, his campaign manager Jose Durbin, and Proft met in a backroom to discuss the campaign.

At that meeting, Proft told Bailey that Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein had agreed to provide $20 million to Bailey’s campaign – and allegedly slid an envelope over to Bailey containing a check to that effect – if Proft was given control over it.

Questioned about the meeting on Monday, Bailey confirmed that it became heated as Proft made clear his disagreements with Durbin’s managing of Bailey’s campaign up to that point.

“Mr. Proft, in your own words, called Mr. Durbin an ‘effing moron’ – is that right?” DPI attorney Marilyn Robb asked Bailey, who confirmed with a “yes.”

Proft said Monday he disagreed with the “general messaging and message discipline with respect to the primary campaign.”

If Proft wasn’t given control, Uihlein would instead direct those millions to Proft’s PAC, according to testimony in Monday’s hearing. According to state campaign finance records, Uihlein gave $42 million to the PAC, which in turn spent nearly $36 million during the second half of 2022.

In addition to that meeting, Hardin’s lawyers argued that Bailey’s appearances on Proft’s talk show were a way to coordinate messaging.

“We’re denying people the truth. This is why your streets aren’t safe…” Bailey said in a June 29, 2022 interview on Proft’s show, hours before that backroom meeting. “We’ve got the message – it’s true. We’ve just got to get it out.”

Proft denied the radio appearance counted as coordination, pointing to the fact that crime was a hot topic throughout the 2022 election cycle and that he had other candidates for office and public officials on his show.

Democrats’ passage of the SAFE-T Act, which included certain police reforms and made Illinois the first state to fully abandon its cash bail system, became a unifying theme for Republicans to knock Democrats after its passage in early 2021 and through its full implementation last year.

Proft’s PAC also used footage taken from the Bailey campaign’s YouTube channel, something that Hardin’s lawyers also argued was only done to coordinate giving material to friendly PACs.

“That is explainable for no purpose other than a desire to help independent groups make ads,” Fox said.

Under Illinois election law, “independent expenditure committees” like Proft’s PAC are barred from making expenditures “in connection, consultation, or concert with or at the request or suggestion of” public officials or candidates for office.

But Bailey’s lawyer said that the actual meaning of this prohibition is not clear.

“This would have been far more appropriate for the board to take up as a rule-making process and make a pronouncement so that PACs and candidates can govern their affairs more clearly based on a clearly delineated set of rules going forward rather than adjudicating somebody for violating rules before we determine what they are,” Jeffrey Meyer said Monday.

In January, a previous hearing officer from the state board of elections noted that it was “rather difficult to determine” what constitutes coordination under the law, given that neither state law nor administrative rules provide further guidance on the subject.

There is also a lack of case law, according to Illinois State Board of Elections spokesperson Matt Dietrich, who said that this is the first complaint in Illinois to allege coordination between an independent expenditure committee and a candidate.

Lawyers for Hardin as well as Proft and Bailey are expected to file additional legal briefs in the coming weeks. The Illinois State Board of Elections will decide the case this summer.

Proft has also faced criticisms and a 2016 Federal Election Commission complaint over his publishing and use of a network of free “newspapers” and corresponding websites to support conservative political candidates.

In 2018, Proft sued the Board of Elections and then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan in federal court in an unsuccessful attempt to ease restrictions on what activities could be coordinated between political groups and candidates.

In 2020, Proft shuttered his first independent expenditure PAC – called Liberty Principles PAC – with $39,000 unaccounted for, according to state finance records. Uihlein had also donated heavily to that PAC, which Proft founded in 2012, to support conservative candidates.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Andrew Adams as a state government and data reporter with Capitol News Illinois in Springfield.
Hannah Meisel is a reporter at Capitol News Illinois.