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Illinois governor’s race poll shows Darren Bailey with a big lead over Richard Irvin

Two side-by-side headshots of Darren Bailey (left) and Richard Irvin (right).
Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere, Rich Hein
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Chicago Sun-Times
State Sen. Darren Bailey, left, at a GOP gubernatorial primary debate last month; Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, right, at a news conference in Aurora in May.

In a potentially seismic shift in the Republican race for governor, downstate farmer Darren Bailey has seized a 15-percentage-point lead over Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin less than three weeks before the Illinois primary, a new Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll has found.

The survey of 677 likely Republican primary voters taken Monday and Tuesday by Public Policy Polling showed the first-term senator from southern Illinois opening up a commanding lead over Irvin and their four other primary rivals, marking the first public poll to put Bailey ahead of the pack.

A total of 32% of respondents said they’d vote for Bailey if the primary were held this past week. Only 17% chose Irvin. And the downstate lawmaker was beating Irvin not only on his own rural and small-town turf but also in the vast stretch of Chicago suburbs, where the Aurora mayor had been expected to do well.

If the numbers hold, it would represent a brutal repudiation by Illinois’ Republican voters of Irvin, his array of mainstream party endorsements and, most pointedly, his $50 million benefactor, Chicago hedge fund tycoon Ken Griffin.

As the new polling suggests, Griffin’s designs on installing the mayor of Illinois’ second-largest city in the Executive Mansion may be on the verge of getting chewed up and spit out like wheat chaff by a Bible-quoting archconservative who has driven a combine for a living.

For Irvin, the results from the Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll suggest that his campaign may be losing steam at a crucial time. He’s now fending off not just TV ads from Bailey and rival candidate Jesse Sullivan, but also from the Democratic Governors Association, Pritzker and a dark money group airing its own critical ads.

Bailey, meanwhile, is in a position to capitalize on the poll’s findings as he embarks on an ambitious bus tour that he said in a Wednesday Facebook post would make stops in all of Illinois’ 102 counties during the next two weeks.

The poll found Bailey has a nearly two-to-one lead over Irvin, with the rest of the field trailing badly. Besides Bailey, Irvin and venture capitalist Sullivan, other Republicans on the June 28 gubernatorial ballot are suburban businessman Gary Rabine, former state Sen. Paul Schimpf and Hazel Crest attorney Max Solomon.

Whoever emerges from that field will take on first-term Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker this fall, assuming the governor turns back a nominal primary challenger himself later this month.

But besides Bailey and Irvin, only Sullivan finished in the double digits in the poll, with 11%. Rabine had 6%; Schimpf — recipient of the Chicago Tribune’s endorsement — had 4%, and Solomon just 2%. The automated poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points, found 27% of respondents were still undecided.

Under that scenario, to move into first place, Irvin would need to win over more than half of those uncommitted voters and keep Bailey from picking up any of them.

The Sun-Times/WBEZ Poll — and follow-up interviews with some of those surveyed — suggests abortion, Griffin’s millions and former President Donald Trump all influenced respondents’ decisions.

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Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ poll

One downstate retiree complained that Irvin was “just not a Trumper.”

Amid attacks and ad buys, a shift

The polling was conducted less than a week after a second televised debate, in which Irvin’s five rivals focused much of their attacks on him. Equally important, it followed nearly four months of campaign ads and mailers inundating GOP voters. Irvin’s poor showing in the poll comes amid word that his campaign has ceased buying television ad time downstate and, according to a spokeswoman, was “reassessing” its ad strategy.

Irvin began the ad war in January. That’s when he aired his first commercial showing rioting in Aurora’s streets and touting his law-and-order credentials, which have been a consistent focus of his campaign. In a later commercial, Irvin described himself as the “worst nightmare” of Springfield’s Democratic ruling elite.

But Bailey has answered Irvin’s ad barrage with his own commercials funded largely by more than $9 million in contributions from Richard Uihlein, a GOP mega-donor and Lake Forest billionaire. Uihlein was a primary source of political funding for an ultra-conservative group that participated in the rally that preceded the attempted Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

In one of Bailey’s commercials, he displays a softer side of himself, emphasizing his worn hands holding two fistfuls of corn and tying the shoe of a granddaughter.

“These are the hands of a farmer, strong and determined, a grandfather’s hands, supportive and caring,” running mate Stephanie Trussell says in the ad.

Another of his ads showcases a more hell-raising persona, with Bailey aiming a flamethrower at a stack of papers labeled as the “pork-filled” state budget and dramatically torching it.

Perhaps of most significance was where the poll found Bailey to be winning.

Not surprisingly, Bailey appears to be carrying his home base, leading Irvin downstate 38% to 14%. But in an ominous turn for Irvin, Bailey was also ahead in the collar counties, 29% to 18%, and in suburban Cook County, 29% to 21%. Suburban Chicago had been believed to be an Irvin stronghold, and the Chicago television market is where Irvin had concentrated much of his ad buying.

In Chicago itself — generally not prime turf for any Republican — the news for Irvin didn’t get any better. Sullivan, of downstate Petersburg, led in the city with 26%, followed by Irvin at 16% and Bailey at 13%.

Grid of headshots of republican gubernatorial candidates, top row from left, Richard Irvin, Gary Rabine, Darren Bailey; bottom row from left, Paul Schimpf, Max Solomon and Jesse Sullivan. Rich Hein. Anthony Vazquez, Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere
Rich Hein, Anthony Vazquez, Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere
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Chicago Sun-Times
Republican gubernatorial candidates, top row from left, Richard Irvin, Gary Rabine, Darren Bailey; bottom row from left, Paul Schimpf, Max Solomon and Jesse Sullivan. Rich Hein. Anthony Vazquez, Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

The issues that matter to Republican voters

Bailey is anti-abortion, and a staunch Trump supporter. He who once belonged to a group of conservative state representatives dubbed the “Eastern Bloc” that sponsored a ceremonial state resolution calling on Chicago — which Bailey derided in two debates over the past few weeks as a crime-ridden “hellhole” — to be separated from the rest of Illinois. Bailey has vowed to impose term limits and cut taxes, and he became a leader in a movement against Pritzker’s COVID-19 executive orders and mandates.

Irvin is in his second term as Aurora mayor and has repeatedly touted his municipal experience as proof that he could handle everything from fighting crime to reducing property taxes to bipartisanship — but he has provided limited details about his actual platform should he win the primary. He has denied that he’s shifted stances on various issues on the gubernatorial campaign trail, including previous support for mandates and Black Lives Matter.

The poll found that 44% considered the economy their top issue of concern. Crime and corruption came in second with 11% each, while taxes polled at 10%. Just 8% of those polled called abortion their top concern.

Irvin’s murky stance on abortion — and his constant dodging about whether he supports Trump — eroded his standing with some GOP voters concerned about just how conservative he is, according to poll respondents who spoke to the Sun-Times and WBEZ.

Although Irvin has said he’s “pro-life,” he has repeatedly refused reporters’ requests for him to comment on the leaked draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that may signal the overturn of Roe v. Wade. He has also refused to say what he would do to curtail abortions in Illinois if that court precedent no longer exists. The rest of the GOP primary field has signaled support for an abortion ban.

The poll was clear where Illinois Republican voters stand.

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Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ poll

Nearly two-thirds of the Republicans surveyed supported tossing out Roe v. Wade, with less than a fifth in opposition.

One poll respondent, Judy Keefe, said Bailey’s clarity on banning abortions and Irvin’s seeming equivocation made her rethink her initial support for Irvin. The 68-year-old semi-retired administrative assistant from north suburban Niles said she is now in Bailey’s camp and still doesn’t grasp Irvin’s position on abortion.

“Bailey is courageous, and he says it very clearly what he is for, and I admire that. He is not taking necessarily a popular opinion, but he’s doing the right thing,” she said.

Keefe also said she considered Irvin’s reliance on Griffin’s tens of millions of dollars to be a liability and “very troubling.”

“There’s going to have to be some payback there,” she said, later questioning whether Irvin truly could act independently of his uber-wealthy patron. “I’m not sure what side he’s [on] except the side to make Ken Griffin happy and to be the governor.”

Irvin has repeatedly denied that Griffin would be in the driver’s seat, telling the Sun-Times he’s “nobody’s pushover” and is his “own man.”

The Trump factor

Meanwhile, former President Trump appeared to be a factor in whom Illinois Republicans were prepared to support.

The poll found 52% of respondents said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported Trump, while 36% said it wouldn’t make a difference. Another 8% said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who supported the former president.

Bailey visited Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in April, claiming he had an “amazing conversation” with the ex-president, and later posted a picture of the two on his Twitter account. But so far, Trump has stayed out of Illinois’ Republican gubernatorial primary after being stung by recent endorsements around the country that didn’t pan out.

By contrast, some poll respondents voiced criticism of Irvin’s seemingly hostile views of Trump. Irvin has lacked clarity on whether he supports Trump. And in May, WTTW-TV reported on text messages it had obtained in which the Aurora mayor in 2018 called Trump “an idiot” and a “bigoted racist.” Irvin has said he doesn’t remember sending the text messages.

Poll respondent Salli Kuncewicz, a 66-year-old retiree from Quincy, said she chose Bailey because Irvin was “just not a Trumper.”

“The way I look at Trump, he’s a financial person. So what I look for is the person who is going to be the best for the working man. And I’m not real sure he [Irvin] would do that,” Kuncewicz said. “He’s one of the never-Trumpers and that really kind of turned me around.”

Overall, the poll found Republican voters liked Bailey more than Irvin — with well over half having a favorable view of the state senator, compared to a little more than a third for the Aurora mayor.

Asked their opinion of Bailey, 26% said it was very favorable, while 31% called their opinion of him somewhat favorable. Another 11% said their opinion of Bailey was somewhat unfavorable, 5% said it was very unfavorable, and 27% said they weren’t sure.

For Irvin, just 9% considered him very favorably, while 26% of those polled view him somewhat favorably. Another 18% had somewhat unfavorable opinions of Irvin, and 25% had very unfavorable views. Another 22% were unsure.

Any poll is just a snapshot in time, but the Sun-Times/WBEZ pollster has a solid track record.

FiveThirtyEight gives Public Policy Polling an A- grade among pollsters it analyzed based on the firm’s historical accuracy and surveying methodology. The Democratic-leaning pollster based in Raleigh, NC, accurately predicted the outcome of 79% of races it called, FiveThirtyEight reported.

Dave McKinney and Tina Sfondeles cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @TinaSfon.

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