Can Bailey win over suburban voters to become governor as Republicans have in the past?
Suburban Cook and collar county voters were crucial when the governor's mansion flipped in elections won by GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2014 and Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2018.
And there's no doubt the suburbs loom large in the Nov. 8 throwdown between Pritzker and Republican challenger Darren Bailey.
So will the region stick with Pritzker, who's leading in recent polls, or does conservative Bailey have traction?
The state senator "has a shot at winning because nationwide, crime and the economy have become the central concerns of voters," said supporter Jeanne Ives, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and state lawmaker. "Illinois has a terrible record on protecting people's physical security and financial security."
But Kane County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Guethle finds "people I talk with are pleased with the governor's performance. Whether it's $1.8 billion in tax relief on groceries, gas and property taxes, he also made college more affordable and is ensuring protection for reproductive rights into law. And raised the minimum wage."
When Rauner defeated Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in 2014, 3.6 million Illinoisans voted, according to state records. Suburban Cook and collar county residents cast 849,256 votes for Rauner, including majorities in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.
In the 2018 gubernatorial contest, statewide turnout shot up to 4.5 million, a 25% increase from four years earlier. Suburbanites cast 1,097,776 votes for Pritzker, about 44% of his total. In the suburbs, Rauner won a majority only in McHenry County.
Palatine Republican Aaron Del Mar, who ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Gary Rabine in the June primary, expects GOP voters in downstate Illinois, suburban Cook County and McHenry County will come out in force for Bailey. But still, "Darren has an uphill climb," the state central committeeman said.
One drawback is that establishment Republicans aren't rallying the troops for the conservative senator, Del Mar thinks. The other is a cash shortfall.
"It would have been a lot more competitive race if Ken Griffin had not left and gone to Florida," Del Mar said, referring to the hedge fund billionaire who bankrolled moderate Republicans, including Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin in the June primary. "There are a lot of people who were promised a lot of funding and it never came through, and now we're dealing with the aftermath of that.
"(Bailey is) our nominee. We may not necessarily share the exact same values, but we've got to try and consolidate all of our people together and get some of our people through the finish line in November," Del Mar said.
Bailey received a much-prized endorsement from Trump shortly before the primary. But the endorsement's impact in a general election is uncertain in Illinois, where President Joe Biden earned 58% of the vote in 2020 compared to Trump's 41%.
"The hard-core Trumpers will be voting, but in Lake County the number of hard-core Trumpers is not high," former Democratic state Sen. Bill Morris of Grayslake said.
Meanwhile, "I actually think the turnout will be a bit lower than most experts think even for a nonpresidential year," Morris said.
Del Mar also forecast an "abysmal" turnout, but Democratic Party of DuPage County Chairman Ken Mejia-Beal sees a different outcome.
"Folks are fired up over the issue of abortion and various other causes," Mejia-Beal said. "I believe that the urgency to vote has been explained to our voters, and we anticipate a nice turnout."
Bailey, a Xenia farmer, opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother and said he'd try to repeal a 2021 law that ended parental notification when minors get abortions.
Chicagoan Pritzker is a strong advocate for reproductive rights who expanded access to abortion after the June 24 reversal of Roe v. Wade.
"While Sen. Bailey, based on polling, continues to be doing well downstate, his challenges seem to (be) the suburban vote with regards to issues of significant importance, particularly to women voters in the suburbs," said Republican state Sen. Don DeWitte, of St. Charles.
"The key to Sen. Bailey's ultimate result on Nov. 8 will be if our voters, both Republican and Democrat and independents, tire of the one-party, progressive liberal rule that Democrats continue to impose on the residents of our state."
Meanwhile, Democratic state Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin noted that "while polls show that Pritzker is ahead, and while there are single-issue voters out there, I don't think that one issue is driving people to the polls.
"I think when people show up to vote in this election, they're showing up to protect organized labor rights, to protect kids who deserve to feel safe from gun violence in schools, and to protect women's health care rights."
On Aug. 24, Pritzker stumped in Elk Grove Village at the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council offices.
Grayslake retiree Jim Knaack will vote for Pritzker because "he's pro-union. That's what we need to keep these jobs going," he said.
On Oct. 12, Bailey worked suburban diners at a Villa Park restaurant where he received a pumpkin decorated in his image from artist John Kettman and a nod from Elmhurst resident Mary Bird.
Asked why she supports Bailey, Bird said, "For schools, for education, for taxes. And, I'm pro-life."