LINCOLN, Ailing. — Darren Bailey, the front-runner within the Republican primary for governor of Illinois, was ending his stump speech last week at a senior center on this Central Illinois town when a voice called out: “Can we pray for you?”
Mr. Bailey readily agreed. The speaker, a youth mentor from Lincoln named Kathy Schmidt, placed her right hand on his left shoulder while he closed his eyes and held out his hands, palms open.
“Greater than anything,” she prayed, “I ask for that, on this election, you raise up the righteous and strike down the wicked.”
The wicked, on this case, are the Chicago-based moderates aiming to keep up control over the Illinois Republican Party. And the righteous is Mr. Bailey, a far-right state senator who’s unlike any nominee the party has recommend for governor in living memory.
A 56-year-old farmer whose Southern Illinois house is closer to Nashville than to Chicago, he wears his hair in a crew cut, speaks with a thick drawl and doesn’t sand down his conservative credentials, as so many past leading G.O.P. candidates have done to attempt to appeal to suburbanites on this overwhelmingly Democratic state. On Saturday, former President Donald J. Trump endorsed Mr. Bailey at a rally near Quincy, Ailing.
Mr. Bailey has upended rigorously laid $50 million plans by Illinois Republican leaders to nominate Mayor Richard C. Irvin of Aurora, a moderate suburbanite with an inspiring personal story who they believed could win back the governor’s mansion in Springfield in what’s widely forecast to be a winning yr for Republicans.
Mr. Bailey has been aided by an unprecedented intervention from Mr. Pritzker and the Pritzker-funded Democratic Governors Association, which have spent nearly $35 million combined attacking Mr. Irvin while attempting to lift Mr. Bailey. No candidate for any office is believed to have ever spent more to meddle in one other party’s primary.
The Illinois governor’s race is now on course to grow to be the costliest campaign for a nonpresidential office in American history.
Private and non-private polling ahead of Tuesday’s primary shows Mr. Bailey with a lead of 15 percentage points over Mr. Irvin and 4 other candidates. His strength signals the broader shift in Republican politics across the country, away from urban power brokers and toward a rural base that demands fealty to a far-right agenda aligned with Mr. Trump.
For Mr. Bailey, the proposal to excise Chicago, which he called “a hellhole” during a televised debate last month, encapsulates the grievances long felt across rural Central and Southern Illinois — places culturally far afield and long resentful of the politically dominant big city.
“The remaining of the 90 percent of the land mass isn’t real glad about how 10 percent of the land mass is directing things,” Mr. Bailey said in an interview aboard his campaign bus outside a bar in Green Valley, a village of 700 people south of Peoria. “A considerable amount of people outside of that 10 percent don’t have a voice, and that’s an issue.”
That pitch has resonated with the conservative voters flocking to Mr. Bailey, who looked as if it would compare Mr. Irvin to Devil during a Facebook Live monologue in February.
“Every little thing that we pay and do supports Chicago,” said Pam Page, a security analyst at State Farm Insurance from McLean, Ailing., who got here to see Mr. Bailey in Lincoln. “Downstate just never seems to get any of the perks or any of the kickbacks.”
The onslaught of Democratic television promoting attacking Mr. Irvin and attempting to elevate Mr. Bailey has frustrated the Aurora mayor, whose campaign was conceived of and funded by the identical team of Republicans who helped elect social moderates like Mark Kirk to the Senate in 2010 and Bruce Rauner as governor in 2014. Their recipe: In strong Republican years, find moderate candidates who can win over voters in Chicago’s suburbs — and spend a ton of cash.
Mr. Irvin, 52, fit their bill. Born to a teenage single mother in Aurora, he’s an Army veteran of the primary Gulf War who served as a neighborhood prosecutor before becoming the primary Black mayor of town, the second most populous in Illinois.
Kenneth Griffin, the Chicago billionaire hedge fund founder who’s the chief benefactor for Illinois Republicans, gave $50 million to Mr. Irvin for the first alone and pledged to spend more for him in the final election. Mr. Griffin, the state’s richest man, won’t support some other Republican within the race against Mr. Pritzker, in keeping with his spokesman, Zia Ahmed. Mr. Griffin announced last week that his hedge fund and trading firm would relocate to Miami.
While Mr. Irvin, a longtime Republican who has nevertheless voted in a series of recent Democratic primaries in Illinois, expected an expensive dogfight in the final election, he’s frustrated by the first season intervention from Mr. Pritzker, a billionaire who’s America’s richest elected official.
“This has never happened within the history of our nation that a Democrat would spend this much money stopping one individual from becoming the nominee of the Republican Party,” Mr. Irvin said in an interview after touring a producing plant in Wauconda, a well-to-do suburb north of Chicago. “There are six Republican primary opponents — six of them. But whenever you activate the tv, all you see is me.”
Mr. Griffin said that “J.B. Pritzker is frightened of facing Richard Irvin in the final election.”
He added, “He and his cronies on the D.G.A. have shamelessly spent tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars meddling within the Republican primary in an effort to idiot Republican voters.”
Mr. Pritzker said that ads emphasizing Mr. Bailey’s conservative credentials had the identical message he plans to make use of in the final election. He said he was not afraid of running against Mr. Irvin or of the hundreds of thousands Mr. Griffin would spend on his campaign.
“It’s a multitude over there,” Mr. Pritzker said in an interview on Friday. “They’re all anti-choice. Literally, you possibly can go down the list of things that I believe really matter to people across the state. And, you already know, they’re all terrible. So I’ll take any certainly one of them and I’ll beat them.”
The first race alone has drawn $100 million in TV promoting. Mr. Pritzker has spent more cash on TV ads than anyone else running for any office within the country this yr. Mr. Irvin ranks second, in keeping with AdImpact, a media tracking firm.
Far behind them is Mr. Bailey, whose primary financial benefactor is Richard Uihlein, the billionaire megadonor of far-right Republican candidates, who has donated $9 million of the $11.6 million Mr. Bailey has raised and sent one other $8 million to a political motion committee that has attacked Mr. Irvin as insufficiently conservative.
Presidential politics for each parties loom over the first.
Mr. Irvin won’t say whom he voted for within the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and, within the interview, declined to say if he would support Mr. Trump if he ran for president in 2024. He called President Biden “the legitimate president” and said former Vice President Mike Pence had performed his constitutional duty on Jan. 6, 2021.
As the first draws near, establishment Republicans across the state are fretting in regards to the prospect of Mr. Bailey dragging down the complete G.O.P. ticket in November.
Representative Darin LaHood predicted an “overwhelming” Bailey primary victory in his Central Illinois district, but warned that he could be toxic for general-election voters.
“Bailey isn’t going to play within the suburbs,” said Mr. LaHood, who has not endorsed a primary candidate. “He’s got a Southern drawl, a Southern accent. I mean, he must be running in Missouri, not in suburban Chicago.”
Former Gov. Jim Edgar, the one Illinois governor from outside the Chicago area since World War II, said Mr. Bailey’s rise showed that party leaders “don’t have the grasp or the control of their constituents like they did back within the ’80s and the ’90s.”
Mr. Bailey’s supporters say the true fight is for the soul of the Republican Party. To them, winning the first and seizing control of the state party is just as vital, if no more so, than triumphing in the final election.
Running for attorney general on a slate with Mr. Bailey is Thomas DeVore, his lawyer within the pandemic lawsuits against Mr. Pritzker. On the campaign trail, he wears untucked golf shirts that reveal his forearm tattoos — “Freedom” on his right arm, “Liberty” on his left.
“Whether or not Darren and I win the final election, if we are able to no less than get control inside our own party, I believe long run we’ve got a possibility to achieve success,” Mr. DeVore said at their stop in Green Valley.
And David Smith, the manager director of the Illinois Family Institute, an anti-abortion organization whose political arm endorsed Mr. Bailey, said the G.O.P. race was about excising the party’s moderate elements.
“This primary,” he said, “has got to purge the Republican Party of those that are self-serving snollygosters.”
Catie Edmondson contributed reporting from Mendon, Ailing.