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Downstate Illinois congressional race highlights the GOP's hard move to the right

Rick Pearson and Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Political News

MARION, Ill. — The day after former President Donald Trump endorsed his congressional opponent, a scorned Darren Bailey who had deeply coveted Trump’s backing took to Facebook to deliver another of his near-daily video devotionals to supporters.

“I am so confident of victory because I believe that you know that you’re not going to let an endorsement stand in the way of you doing the right thing — that you’re going to show up, you’re going to vote for the right person,” Bailey said of his insurgent GOP primary challenge to five-term downstate U.S. Rep. Mike Bost.

While Bailey — whose unsuccessful 2022 Republican bid for governor was embraced by Trump — had again courted the former president with frequent trips to Mar-a-Lago, he derided Trump’s endorsement of Bost as an example of how “deals are made behind closed doors.” After pledging fealty to Trump, Bailey now spun that he felt liberated and that “the blessing” of not getting the endorsement shows he’s “not beholden to anyone.”

“In a way, I felt a sense of relief that I will be able to stand up, stand firmly, confidently, resolutely,” he said. “I will stand on our principles and values” and will “not be sold out.”

In the deeply ruby red 12th Congressional District, the state’s most Republican district encompassing all or part of 34 counties in the southernmost one-third of Illinois, Trump looms large. From within its boundaries — the district was redrawn in 2022 following the U.S. census — Trump scored nearly 71% of the vote in the 2020 election over Democratic President Joe Biden.

It’s also among the most conservative districts in the nation, its ideology and culture symbolized by the soaring 198-foot-tall Cross at the Crossroads in Effingham along Interstates 57 and 70. The district stretches down to several Illinois borders, encompassing Cairo and Metropolis on the south, Waterloo, Chester and the Mississippi River on the west and Lawrenceville and Shawneetown on the east. The lone blueberry in the apple pie is Carbondale, home to Southern Illinois University.

 

All of which makes Bailey’s challenge to Bost more noteworthy. But the congressional race, along with other challenges from the right to elected conservatives in downstate, down-ballot legislative races, represent the evolution of Republican conservativism in Illinois and across the nation. Conservatives have moved the GOP steadily to the right, from U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s no-holds-barred leadership with the Contract with America in 1994 to the grassroots Tea Party movement to the extremes of the current hard-line House Freedom Caucus — with Trump’s influence over the GOP now serving as an accelerant.

Ryan Burge, a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, said he sees the primaries as “endemic of what’s going on in the Republican Party. The Republican Party’s gone rogue.”

“I think these votes are indicative of how we think about the future of America. Not to get too hyperbolic, but is the American experiment over? I think we’re really teetering on the brink of that question,” Burge said.

“If Bailey wins, I just think it’s more evidence that the American public is so pissed off about their station in life that they’d rather burn the whole thing down than stick with business as usual. And, I don’t think they fully realize the ramifications of destroying all the institutions that made America what it is. So really, that’s the referendum,” he said.

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