BELLEVILLE, Ill — As early voting is set to begin on Thursday, a recent poll conducted by Emerson College showed the Illinois primary race for governor is wide open with 36.9% of likely primary voters registering as "undecided."
Five of the six Republicans running for a chance to challenge Governor J.B. Pritzker in November participated in an open forum in Belleville on Saturday.
The GOP candidates focused on their stances against abortion, their opposition to controversial curriculum about race and sex in the classroom and their challenges to Pritzker's pandemic protocols.
"We sued, we won, and then the journey began," state Senator Darren Bailey (R-Louisville) told the crowd about his 2020 lawsuit challenging the state.
Former state Senator Paul Schimpf, a retired Marine prosecutor, fact-checked Bailey on the spot.
"You did not win that case," he scolded Bailey. "You lost."
A circuit court judge in Bailey's hometown initially released Bailey from the state's order for nonessential workers to stay at home. Bailey later lost his case when the Illinois Attorney General won on an appeal. The court also denied Bailey's request for Pritzker to pay his legal fees.
After the forum concluded, Schimpf accused state Senator Darren Bailey of inflating his record in his legal battles with Governor Pritzker.
"To say that he won his lawsuit just because he won the first ruling, that's like the St. Louis Cardinals saying that they won the playoff game against the Dodgers because they were ahead after three innings," Schimpf said. "It's the final ruling that counts."
Bailey never owned up to stretching the truth, or explained his misleading statement to voters, but instead hit back at Schimpf, telling voters that "desperation is certainly in the air on stage."
A recent Emerson College poll showed 19.8% of likely Republican primary voters would back Bailey. The downstate farmer trails behind Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin's 24.1%. Gary Rabine and Jesse Sullivan each polled at 7%.
Bailey cited the poll and suggested the other candidates on stage were no longer relevant.
"This race is already a two-person race, and that other person isn't here today, but I am," he said, hammering Irvin for "supporting BLM," an acronym for Black Lives Matter.
Irvin was attending a police memorial for fallen officers at the time, his campaign said.
Political outsiders Gary Rabine and Jesse Sullivan, both entrepreneurs, sharpened their stump speeches in their strategic efforts to shore up support and escape the single-digits in the polls.
Rabine highlighted his economic policies and touted his successful legal challenge against the Biden administration's vaccine mandate.
"God bless Darren. He fought for his one mask for himself," Rabine said. "I fought for over 80 million people in our country. 80 million people free of vaccines today because of our fight."
Sullivan described himself as a "patriot" fighting in "a spiritual battle" to protect children from the "extreme left" who he claimed were "indoctrinating our kids with sexuality at young ages."
"I think the biggest reason why we are losing right now is because everyone buys into this idea of the separation of church and state," Sullivan said later. "What we actually need is somebody who's going to say, 'No, our faith values can insert themselves into government. They're supposed to, and God belongs back at the center of our politics.'"
Max Solomon, a Nigerian immigrant who became a lawyer, used similar religious rhetoric and called Democrats "evil."
"They're going after our children," Solomon said. "They're going after future generation. We need to stop that. CRT has got to go."
"CRT? That was written into the rules," Bailey said. "CRT can be written out of the rules."
At a church in Effingham, Bailey previously railed against "culturally responsive teaching" rules the Illinois State Board of Education adopted to encourage teachers to be sensitive to varying viewpoints from students of color.
Schimpf warned voters against backing a candidate who is too divisive.
"We are trying to unify the state. We are not running on outrage," he said. "If you're tired of the toxicity in politics, don't support candidates that are toxic."
"It's no secret that the Democrats recognize that Darren [Bailey] is the easiest opponent for J.B. Pritzker in the in the general election," Schimpf said.
Several of the Republicans running for governor are running from their own voting records in a primary that may boil down to a partisan purity contest where voters evaluate how loyal they are to the GOP.
Election records show Richard Irvin, Jesse Sullivan and Darren Bailey all voted for Democrats in big presidential races. Now the candidates are facing questions from voters who want to know why.
"I'm the only candidate of the top four candidates that did not vote for Barack Obama," Rabine said.
"I don't know who all voted for Obama up here, but it sure as heck wasn't me," Bailey deflected.
"I have never voted for any presidential candidate that has pro-abortion," Schimpf said. "Others have."
"I never said, and there's nowhere on record that I said, I voted for Obama," Bailey repeated. "I don't know for sure where that's at."
Bailey admits he voted for a Democrat in 2008, but something about his explanation doesn't add up. He claims he participated in Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" to stop Hillary Clinton from winning, except Limbaugh didn't launch that idea until after the Illinois primary was already over that year.
If that was his goal -- to block Hillary Clinton -- Obama was the only other candidate still running at the time. Joe Biden's name was still on the ballot, but he had already dropped out one month before the Illinois primary, and could not have satisfied Bailey's stated strategy of blocking Clinton's nomination.
The politics from 14-year-old elections are ancient history in an era when GOP voters want to know what they'd do in the next four years.
They might get that chance next Tuesday if the candidates can even agree to debate on the same stage. Currently, two Chicago TV stations are promoting competing debates on the same night, but neither has a full slate of candidates committed to attend.
As the candidates stake out their positions and start increasing their voter outreach, key strategies are starting to emerge in their messaging.
Rabine talks to voters who care about the economy. Sullivan speaks to Christian voters who want more religious influence in politics. Both of those voter blocs threaten to erode key constituencies that make up Bailey's base.
Schimpf urges voters to value decency and honesty over shock-and-awe rhetoric and publicity stunts.
Irvin has the biggest pile of money behind him. He'll make the case Thursday morning at a campaign stop in Bethalto that he's the only one who can actually win a general election in a blue state.
Irvin's campaign says he will meet with media during his stop in the Metro East. As the race heats up down the stretch, Republicans are likely to grill him over text messages he sent four years ago calling former President Trump an "idiot" and "bigoted racist."
Early voting in the Illinois primary starts on Thursday, May 19. The polls close on Tuesday, June 28.