Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, the Republican with the most money and best polling position so far, served as a political pinata Thursday for his five GOP rivals for Illinois governor during their first public debate with him on the same televised stage.
Topics during the hourlong WLS-TV/Illinois League of Women Voters/Univision debate ran the gamut from guns to abortion to taxes to COVID-19 mask mandates.
The night’s most dominant theme, though, seemingly shared by five of the six members seeking the party’s nomination to take on Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker this fall, was bringing Irvin down a notch.
“I’m not interested in defeating you just because you’re a Democrat,” state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, said as he turned toward Irvin. “I’m interested in defeating you because you’re a corrupt Democrat.”
That moment of snarling came in response to a debate panelist’s question about COVID-19 mitigations, and it didn’t take Irvin long to fire back, igniting a back-and-forth between the two fundraising frontrunners in the June 28 primary.
“I won’t be lectured by someone like Darren Bailey who had a mask mandate on his own farm for the…,” Irvin said, before being interrupted.
“You can’t tell the truth, sir,” Bailey injected before Irvin finished his response.
It was like that for much of the night.
Cryptocurrency investor Jesse Sullivan, of downstate Petersburg, piled on a few moments later, mocking the $50 million campaign nest egg that Chicago hedge fund tycoon Kenneth Griffin deposited in Irvin’s account this spring.
“Richard said his greatest and his only strength, he has a whole lot of money that he’s willing to throw around,” Sullivan said. “Well, money cannot buy you character. Money cannot buy you a conservative record.”
Near the end of the debate, Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine had his shot at thumbing his nose at Irvin.
“If we want a Democrat to lead the Republican Party, Richard, you’re the guy,” Rabine said. “Seven of eight of the last elections, you voted in the Democratic primary.”
And at another point, the whole Republican field appeared to chime in on a question about abortion and what, as governor, he’d do in Illinois if the U.S. Supreme Court scrapped the Roe v. Wade abortion-rights standard that has stood for nearly 50 years.
As he has before on abortion, Irvin never explicitly said whether he’d take steps to ban the procedure in Illinois or if he would allow certain exemptions like rape and incest. The only on-topic response he made to the question was a vow to reimpose parental notification for minors seeking abortions, a requirement that Pritzker abolished and that took effect this week.
“Did you answer the question yet?” Rabine interjected during a meandering response Irvin delivered on abortion.
“Richard Irvin, the great imposter,” Bailey scowled moments later after noting his own litany of anti-abortion endorsements.
To his credit, Irvin appeared to commit no serious gaffes that would be the subject of watercooler talk Friday morning. In fact, he almost seemed to relish being the object of his opponent’s criticism.
“I know many of my opponents here on this stage are attacking me. And I understand. I get it. They’re threatened by the fact I’m violating their political aspirations. I’m hurting their political aspirations,” Irvin said.
The debate started with what arguably is the most pressing policy question now facing any public official in the U.S.: what to do about the prevalence of military-style weapons following last week’s deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., that killed 19 students and two teachers.
Not once did any of the Republican candidates for Illinois governor suggest beefed-up gun-control measures.
“We must offer…mental health solutions and help these people to be able to get help and to be able to function in life,” Bailey said, laying out his abstract plan to target potentially unhinged gunmen before they strike. “I think that’s the only solution we have.”
Without offering specifics of his own, Irvin cited the need to make sure “we keep these guns out of the hands of criminals and keep these guns out of the hands of people with mental illnesses.”
Rabine, meanwhile, argued the need to arm teachers and give them special advanced training to be able to defend their classrooms from armed intruders.
“Instead of a gun-free zone, how about advance-concealed-carry zone, where a person with a gun doesn’t know. If somebody is trying to do bad things to our kids, they don’t know if 10% or 80% of the teachers are armed,” he said.
The WLS-TV/Illinois League of Women Voters/Univision event marked the first time that all six Republican gubernatorial candidates have appeared together in a public debate, though candidate Sullivan appeared remotely due to a positive COVID-19 test.
The race to decide which Republican takes on Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker this fall has been a big-money affair with the two fundraising leaders in the race milking dollars – and lots of them – from their own favored billionaire patrons.
Irvin, far and away, has the most cash of anyone in the field, relying on the $50 million campaign machine that Chicago hedge fund tycoon Kenneth Griffin has bought for the Aurora mayor as part of his aim to be “all-in” in defeating Pritzker this year.
But Bailey has emerged as a competitive alternative thanks to support he’s received from billionaire GOP mega-donor and Lake Forest businessman, Richard Uihlein. The owner of the ULINE office- and shipping-supply firm has pumped more than $9 million in contributions into Bailey’s campaign, enabling him to counter Irvin’s television-advertising blitz.
Bailey has tried currying favor with former President Donald Trump in hopes of lining up a possible endorsement, which could carry weight in the primary. The senator visited Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida as part of a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., and posed for a picture with Trump, but so far no endorsement has emerged.
The lack of similar financing has kept others in the field relatively muted.
Also appearing at the Thursday evening debate were Hazel Crest attorney Max Solomon and former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, of Waterloo, who scored the Chicago Tribune’s political endorsement this past week but made no mention of it during the broadcast.
Recent polling has signaled the GOP gubernatorial primary may be a two-person race between Irvin and Bailey.
In early May, polling by WGN-TV/The Hill/Emerson College Polling showed Irvin with 24.1%, Bailey with 19.8% and the rest of the field in single digits. The margin of error in that poll was 4 percentage points, meaning essentially a dead heat between Bailey and Irvin.
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.