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Some of the country's richest people try to influence the Illinois race for governor

Darren Bailey, Illinois State Senator and gubernatorial candidate, speaks alongside former President Donald Trump on Saturday, June 25, 2022, during a “Save America!” Rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill.
Darren Bailey, Illinois State Senator and gubernatorial candidate, speaks alongside former President Donald Trump on Saturday, June 25, 2022, during a “Save America!” Rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill.

CHICAGO - Voters in Illinois are seeing first-hand what money can buy when it comes to political office.

Three different mega-donors are spending tens of millions of dollars to try to influence the outcome of the Republican primary for Illinois governor in Tuesday's election.

One is billionaire Democratic incumbent Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, but he hasn't been spending millions of his personal wealth all on his own campaign.

He and the Democratic Governors Association have been attempting to help ultraconservative GOP Illinois State Sen. Darren Bailey who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump Saturday.

Pritzker's and the DGA's strategy appears to be that Bailey would be one of the easier Republican candidates to beat in November's election, with their ads echoing that Bailey's policies "are just too conservative for Illinois."

It's not uncommon for one party to get involved in the other's primary, but it doesn't always work.

In this case, Republican primary voters seem to be buying into it.

The Democrats' ads speak a coded language to Republican voters, and Bailey appears to have welcomed the help to win the crowded primary.

"I think it's obvious Gov. Pritzker thinks I'm the easiest candidate to beat, and my message to Gov. Pritzker is 'be careful what you wish for because it's coming right toward you,' " Bailey and Illinois ABC TV station. "The people of Illinois are absolutely fed up with the state of our state. They're ready for something different."

Darren Bailey backed by Dick Uihlein

Bailey is a grain farmer from southern Illinois who has a distinct twang in his voice. A poll from NPR member station WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times shows he has a big lead in the primary race.

He's pro-gun rights and opposes abortion rights. And, as seen by his endorsement, he is a fervent supporter of Trump.

He also constantly criticizes the city of Chicago despite the fact that, as governor, he would oversee that economic engine of the state.

"Let's just call it like it is. Let's think about Chicago: A crime-ridden, corrupt, dysfunctional hellhole," Bailey said at a debate hosted by Chicago TV station WGN.

Bailey also went so far as to sponsor a resolution that would separate Chicago from the rest of Illinois. It went nowhere in the state's Democratic-led legislature.

That kind of rhetoric, though, has endeared him to wealthy businessman Dick Uihlein, who runs a shipping supply company bearing his last name. He has given Bailey's campaign more than $9 million. Uihlein is a major Republican donor who funded a group involved in the rally before the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Richard Irvin backed by Ken Griffin

Traditionally, Illinois GOP voters support more moderate Republicans who fit the mold of someone more like Richard Irvin. Irvin is the mayor of the Chicago suburb of Aurora — once made famous as the home of Wayne Campbell in Saturday Night Live's sketch "Wayne's World".

Irvin had all the makings of running a highly competitive campaign in November thanks in large part to the $50 million dollars Chicago billionaire Ken Griffin contributed to him. Griffin founded and runs the hedge fund firm Citadel.

Griffin has had an ongoing vendetta with Pritzker as the two clashed most notably on whether the state should tax the rich more than everyone else.

But despite all of that Griffin money, polls show Irvin's campaign hasn't taken off with Republican primary voters.

Griffin announced on Thursday that he and his hedge fund are moving out of Chicago to Miami. A Citadel spokesman said the move is unrelated to Irvin's candidacy.

It appears Irvin hasn't passed the Republican litmus test: He hasn't said what he would do now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. He also refuses to say whether he supported Donald Trump.

In fact, Irvin has deflected questions about Trump as if he's being set up by Democrats, even though polling has shown a majority of Illinois GOP primary voters want to know the answer to that question.

"I'm not gonna fall into the trap of JB Pritzker talking about what he thinks we should be talking about," Irvin has told reporters who have asked him to weigh in on the former president.

More recently, Irvin has pivoted in how he talks about his candidacy, making the case that a hard-right candidate like Darren Bailey cannot beat Pritzker come November.

"A vote for Darren Bailey is a vote for JB Pritzker," Irvin has repeatedly said.

It's a wager that Pritzker himself is willing to bet big on.

Copyright 2022 WBEZ. To see more, visit WBEZ.