O'FALLON, Illinois — Darren Bailey is on a mission from God.
The southern Illinois farmer, a former state senator who lost his bid for governor in 2022, says he is "praying about what's next" in his political career.
"I am blessed beyond measure to travel this mission field of government with Cindy Bailey," Bailey recently wrote on social media.
Bailey holds no government job at the moment, but interviews with his backers and reviews of his recent tours through parts of Illinois' 12th Congressional District suggest he's laying the groundwork to possibly mount a Republican primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Mike Bost (R-Illinois).
"'We the People' are going to take our state and nation back," Bailey said in a social media post after visiting Sparta, Illinois, two weeks ago.
Another clue about Bailey's designs came in the form of a recent poll that asked Republican primary voters to compare Bailey's favorability to Bost, measured support for Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump, and floated a question asking whether voters might support his wife Cindy Bailey in a run against incumbent Jason Plummer for the state senate.
"Would you be more or less likely to vote for Cindy Bailey for state senate if you knew her husband Darren Bailey was also running for Congress," pollsters asked.
Since then, Bailey has raised his public profile in small towns several hours away from where he lives, delivered boxes of donuts to police in several rural counties, appeared at several local businesses across the sprawling district, and repeatedly described himself and his wife as missionaries sent to do God's work in a public government.
"Why is government failing us? Because we are allowing church and state to be separated," Bailey wrote on his Facebook page.
Bailey's fundamentalist firebrand has galvanized his base among the most far-right evangelical voters, but his shadow campaign to test the weaknesses of a pro-Trump conservative has raised the ire of Bost backers who see Bailey as a fanatical opportunist with nowhere else to go.
Bailey's unsuccessful campaign for governor became a populist vehicle for downstate grievances against Chicago Democrats, burnished his image as a pro-Trump Republican and buoyed Bailey's confidence that his name recognition can carry him to victory in any Republican primary.
Bost's political allies see his five consecutive victories, his longstanding relationships with downstate Republican leaders and his conservative voting record in Congress as a firewall against Bailey's potential insurgent campaign. And unlike 2022, Bailey wouldn't have a $35 million boost from Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker to help him win the 2024 primary.
Bailey has hedged his bets in public conversations about his aspirations. In a text message forwarded from a political aide, Bailey said, "Cindy and I are praying about what's next for us. As of right now, there are no plans, but we will keep you updated."
Bailey would have to improve his 2022 general election results to best Bost in the 2024 primary. Last November, in a race where Bailey's name was at the top of the ticket against a liberal Democratic governor who was unpopular downstate, Bost still outperformed Bailey's vote totals in every county in the old IL-12, and in 10 of the new counties in the re-drawn IL-12.
The Bost campaign raised $415,000 in the first three months of 2023, according to campaign documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, which appears to give him considerable resources to wage a counter offensive should Bailey jump into the contest.
Bost's Congressional office also started using government funds to send out tailored messages to people in the district. The rhetoric in the mailed literature appears similar to content you might see in a typical campaign ad.
"Your Second Amendment rights are under attack," one mailer reads. "Out-of-touch liberals in Springfield and D.C. are destroying the Second Amendment."
The unusually partisan rhetoric may draw the attention of ethics watchdogs who could see the government-funded mailers as a violation.
"Franked mail may be used only for matters of public concern or public service," according to an ethical guideline document from the Congressional Research Service. "It may not be used to solicit votes or contributions, to send mail regarding political campaigns or political parties."
Research has shown vulnerable incumbents have utilized the franked mail methods more frequently than members of Congress who sit in "safe seats."
Does Bost expect a primary challenger?
"There could be," he said. "I don't know. Nobody's announced by any means."
Bost spoke highly of Bailey during a recent interview on The Record.
"I did vote for him, matter of fact," he said about the 2022 election.
Bost, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, said he didn't pick a candidate during the 2022 primary due to his relationship with former state senator Paul Schimpf, another downstate military veteran, but claimed he was an enthusiastic Bailey-backer once the party picked its nominee.
"After the primary was over, I supported Bailey and I worked with him and definitely campaigned for him," Bost said. "And I think he would have done a good job. He would have done a lot better job than the existing governor."
Presidential politics could also play a role in the upcoming election.
Bost said he would not reconsider his support for former President Donald Trump now that he's facing criminal charges for committing business fraud.
"Well, you know, I have already endorsed Donald Trump, and I think we've seen a lot of charges that Donald Trump has had over the years that are more political than they are legal issues," Bost said. "Now, he's had some other issues. But the answer is I have endorsed Donald Trump, and that still stands."