Meddling by Democrats makes a mark in GOP gubernatorial primary in Illinois, falls flat in Colorado

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Conservative state Sen. Darren Bailey is not the only winner in Illinois’ Republican gubernatorial primary.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and national Democrats can also claim victory in Tuesday’s primary, thanks to a massive meddling campaign in the Republican nomination race.

However, efforts by pro-Democratic groups in Colorado to shape the state’s GOP Senate and gubernatorial primaries, which were also held on Tuesday, fell short of their intended goals.

Bailey easily topped moderate Republican Mayor Richard Irvin of Aurora, a city in metropolitan Chicago, and cryptocurrency entrepreneur Jesse Sullivan, who were his top two rivals in a field of six GOP candidates.

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Democrats viewed the right-wing Bailey as the weaker general election candidate in November compared to Irvin, who was helped by tens of millions in support from billionaire conservative Ken Griffin, the CEO of Citadel, the multinational hedge fund and financial services behemoth.

Pritzker, a first-term governor, billionaire businessman, philanthropist and member of the family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain, and the Democratic Governors Association shelled out tens of millions of dollars to run ads boosting Bailey.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker greets spectators during the Chicago Pride Parade, Sunday, June 26, 2022.
(AP Photo/Jon Durr)

A DGA spot charged that Bailey is “too conservative for Illinois” by showcasing his conservative credentials, which likely benefited him in the GOP primary.

“100% pro-life, Bailey wants to ban abortions and wants to make it illegal here in Illinois,” the narrator in the DGA ad emphasized. “Proudly embraces the Trump agenda. Fighting for gun owners and the unborn.”

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In the wake of Friday’s blockbuster opinion by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court overturning the landmark half-century-old Roe v. Wade ruling, abortion is expected to be a top issue in the Illinois governor’s general election. Bailey opposes abortion in nearly all cases, while Pritzker wants to make Illinois a safe haven for women from other states where abortion is now illegal.

After Bailey’s victory Tuesday night, DGA executive director Noam Lee quickly attacked the GOP nominee as “a MAGA extremist who’s threatening to drag Illinois backwards. With his far-right, out-of-touch stances on critical issues from abortion to guns to COVID, a would-be Gov. Darren Bailey is a danger to all Illinoisans.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey greets Donald Trump after receiving an endorsement from the former president at a campaign rally on June 25, 2022 in Mendon, Illinois.

State Sen. Darren Bailey greets Donald Trump after receiving an endorsement from the former president at a campaign rally on June 25, 2022 in Mendon, Illinois.
(Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

Bailey earned a last-minute endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who nearly a year and a half removed from the White House remains the most popular and influential politician in the GOP. Trump backed Bailey at a rally the former president headlined in Illinois on Saturday.

Trump’s last-minute endorsement of Bailey – which helped the Democrats’ mission to boost the state senator at the expense of Irvin – was quietly celebrated by Democrats.

“Trump loves nothing more than a bandwagon, and Democrats were more than happy to provide him one to jump on for Darren Bailey. The more rallies in Illinois this fall, the better,” a Democratic strategist who works on gubernatorial races told Fox News.

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However, Trump disagrees with any talk that he took the Democrats’ bait and helped them to nominate Bailey.

“The last thing that J.B Pritzker… wanted was to run against Darren Bailey, a very popular state Senator with a big, beautiful and powerful base,” the former president claimed in a social media post on Wednesday.

While Democrats may claim a meddling victory in Illinois, they struck out in Colorado where they tried to influence the outcome of the GOP Senate and gubernatorial primaries to protect Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. Jared Polis in November in a blue leaning but still competitive state. National Republicans view Bennet as possibly vulnerable and increasingly think they have a chance of winning in a state Biden carried by 14 points two years ago.

In the GOP Senate primary, first-time candidate Joe O’Dea, the owner of Concrete Express, a Denver-based construction company, faced off against Ron Hanks, a military veteran and a state lawmaker.

Republican Senate candidate Joe O'Dea of Colorado hands out donuts to voters outside the state GOP assembly, on April 9, 2022, in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Republican Senate candidate Joe O’Dea of Colorado hands out donuts to voters outside the state GOP assembly, on April 9, 2022, in Colorado Springs, Colorado
(Joe O’Dea Senate campaign)

Democrats viewed Hanks – who supports Trump’s repeated unproven claims that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” due to “massive voter fraud and irregularities” and who marched to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 – as the weaker candidate in November compared to the more moderate O’Dea, who poured millions of his own money into his campaign.

Hanks, who’s fundraising was anemic, got plenty of help from Democratic Colorado, a pro-Democrat super PAC that spent at least $4.5 million to run ads meddling in the GOP Senate primary. 

Hanks was also indirectly getting support from recent mailers that incorrectly claimed he was endorsed by the Colorado GOP. The state Republican Party called the mailers “verifiably false and malicious” and “criminal.” The mailers were also anonymous, breaking election laws that require the naming of the groups that pay for campaign mailers.

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The effort proved unsuccessful though, as O’Dea won the primary by 10 points over Hanks. 

In the GOP gubernatorial primary, a group named “Colorado Information Network” dished out nearly $2 million to run ads boosting underfunded Greg Lopez over Heidi Ganahl, whom Democrats viewed as a more credible candidate to take on Polis in November. But Ganahl ended up winning by roughly eight points.

The GOP races in Illinois and Colorado weren’t the first this year when Democratic groups spent money to try and influence the results. They also meddled in a couple of congressional primaries in California and spent resources to boost state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania, who last month won the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Meddling in the opposition party’s primaries is far from new in campaign politics, but there is always a potential downside to the strategy.

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“Injecting mayhem in the other party’s primary can be tons of fun for professional operatives, but it’s also playing with fire,” said longtime Republican strategist Colin Reed, a veteran of numerous presidential and statewide campaigns.

“Ideally you help an unelectable and unpalatable candidate stagger across the primary finish line and make life easier for your side in the general. But in these turbulent and unpredictable times where voters are craving fresh, outsider leadership, there’s always the risk you misread the electorate and end up giving birth to an unstoppable force that can’t be put back in the box,” Reed warned.

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