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Bost vs Bailey congressional race headlines Illinois GOP primaries to watch

Incumbent Mike Bost, left, and Darren Bailey, right, are running for the 12th Congressional District of Illinois in the March 19 Republican primary. The candidates are pictured at February campaign stops in southern Illinois.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
Incumbent Mike Bost, left, and Darren Bailey, right, are running for the 12th Congressional District of Illinois in the March 19 Republican primary. The candidates are pictured at February campaign stops in southern Illinois.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The March 19 primaries in Illinois may seem anticlimactic to those who are only interested in presidential politics. Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican former President Donald Trump sewed up their nominations a full week before polls even opened in the Prairie State.

But further down the ballot there are still a number of competitive races to watch, including several in downstate Illinois where Republican politics has increased its dominance in many areas.

Perhaps the most closely watched race is in the 12th Congressional District of southern Illinois, where incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Bost, of Murphysboro, faces an intraparty challenge from former state Sen. Darren Bailey, of Xenia, the failed GOP candidate for governor in 2022.

Due to dramatic population losses in southern Illinois, two districts were folded into one following the 2020 census. The 12th District now encompasses nearly the entire area between the Mississippi and Wabash Rivers, from the Ohio River on the south end, north to around Interstate 70.

Bost, a former state representative, was first elected to Congress in 2014 from what is now the western portion of the district. Bailey, meanwhile, represented areas that lie in the eastern portion of the congressional district.

Before the 2020 census, the eastern portion had been a separate congressional district held by U.S. Rep. Mary Miller. She now represents the newly drawn 15th District, which is outside her home, and has endorsed Bailey in the 12th District race.

Southern Illinois was once more competitive than it is now. The 12th District contains much of the area that the late Democrat Paul Simon represented in the U.S. House in the 1970s and 1980s before he was elected to the Senate. But today it is considered safely in Republican hands, meaning the winner of the Republican primary is virtually assured of being elected. In 2022, Bost won the seat by a 3-to-1 margin over Democrat Homer “Chip” Markel.

Two Democrats have filed for the seat as well – Preston Nelson and Brian Roberts – but neither has reported raising or spending any money on their campaigns.

Bost now chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Agriculture Committee. On his campaign website, he describes himself as “unapologetically pro-life.” He is also a staunch supporter of gun rights, supports building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and supports the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy on immigration.

Bailey, a farmer, was elected to the Illinois House in 2018 and served one term. During that term, he sued Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker over the governor’s COVID-19 mitigation orders and was once removed from the House floor for refusing to wear a face covering.

In 2020, Bailey ran for the Senate seat being vacated that year by Dale Righter, of Mattoon, and after one session in the Senate he announced plans to run for governor against Pritzker. Although he won the GOP nomination in a crowded primary race, he lost to Pritzker in the general election, 55-42 percent, a margin of more than 500,000 votes.

In this year’s primary, Bost has enjoyed the power of an incumbent. He has endorsements from National Right to Life, the National Rifle Association, Illinois Farm Bureau, and, perhaps most importantly, former President Trump, who previously backed Bailey in the 2022 gubernatorial race.

“While I like and respect Darren Bailey, and was proud to campaign for him in 2022, Mike Bost was one of the first House Committee Chairmen to endorse my Campaign, and Mike was a stalwart supporter of our America First agenda during my record-setting Administration,” Trump said on his Truth Social account in February.

Bost also has enjoyed a funding advantage, according to Federal Election Commission data, raising and spending more than $2 million through the end of February, compared to only $400,000 in spending by the Bailey campaign.

 Republican Regan Deering concedes the 13th Congressional District race in front of supporters and family members in Decatur.
Emily Hays
Illinois Public Media
Republican Regan Deering concedes the 13th Congressional District to now- U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzkinski, D-Springfield, race in front of supporters and family members last election cycle in Decatur. Deering hopes to replace Rep. Dan Caulkins, of Decatur, a Freedom Caucus member who is stepping down after three terms in the House.

Freedom Caucus races

In state legislative races, a number of Republican primaries involve current or outgoing members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of ultraconservative lawmakers, primarily from eastern and southern Illinois. Caucus members are known for their strident positions on issues such as gun rights, abortion, and immigration.

One of the most unusual primary races is in the 102nd House District in southern Illinois where, officially, no candidate is listed on the ballot for either party.

The seat is currently held by Rep. Adam Niemerg, a Republican from Dietrich who succeeded Bailey in that office when Bailey ran for the Senate in 2020. But Niemerg was removed from the ballot in January over an objection to the notarization of his statement of candidacy.

So Niemerg is now running as a write-in candidate, but he faces a challenge from another write-in candidate, Jim Acklin. A former teacher, coach and school superintendent, Acklin ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2016 and announced his current write-in campaign after Niemerg was removed from the ballot.

Acklin is endorsed by the Illinois Federation of Teachers, whose political action committee has given him at least $35,000, according to campaign finance records. He has also received money from the Illinois Education Association’s PAC and the Illinois Laborers’ Legislative Committee.

Niemerg serves on the House committee that deals with legislation affecting K-12 education. He has appeared on the campaign trail with Bailey and has endorsements from groups such as Illinois Family Action and the Illinois State Rifle Association.

Another primary drawing financial involvement from IFT and other labor groups is the 110th District, where Freedom Caucus member Rep. Blain Wilhour, of Beecher City, faces a challenge from Matthew Hall, of Vandalia.

Wilhour, who was first elected in 2018, serves as the Republican spokesperson on the committee that deals with K-12 education funding.

Hall’s campaign website does not specifically mention his positions on education, focusing instead on his conservative views regarding abortion, law enforcement and gun rights. But his campaign finance reports indicate virtually all his financial support has come from labor-related political committees, including teachers unions.

In the 88th House District in eastern Illinois, a race is underway to replace Rep. Dan Caulkins, of Decatur, a Freedom Caucus member who is stepping down after three terms in the House.

He may be best known for leading a lawsuit to challenge the state’s assault weapons ban, a case he lost at the Illinois Supreme Court, although other challenges to the law are now pending at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Vying to succeed him are Regan Deering, a Decatur native whose grandfather Dwayne Andreas led agribusiness giant Archer Daniel Midland for many years, and McLean County Board member Chuck Erickson.

Deering, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2022 against Democrat Nikki Budzinski, has enjoyed a financial advantage in the race. With endorsements from groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Illinois State Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, and Illinois Farm Bureau, she reported having just over $75,000 in cash on hand at the start of the year.

Erickson touts his membership in groups such as the Illinois State Rifle Association and the gun rights advocacy group Guns Save Life. As a county board member, he recently sponsored an unsuccessful resolution to ban the use of county funds to support migrants being sent to the county. He began the year with just under $27,000 in cash on hand.

Southern Illinois legislators Sen. Dave Severin (R-Benton), Sen. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro), Rep. Dave Friess (R-Red Bud), Rep. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg), and Rep. Patrick Windhorst (R-Metropolis) listen into Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget address on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in the Illinois House of Representatives chambers in Springfield, Ill.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Southern Illinois legislators State Sen. Dave Severin, R-Benton, Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, Rep. Dave Friess, R-Red Bud, Rep. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, and Rep. Patrick Windhorst, R-Metropolis, listen into Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget address in February 2023 at the Illinois House of Representatives chambers in Springfield, Ill.

Senate races

State Sen. Terri Bryant, of Murphysboro, is the only Republican state senator facing a primary challenge this year. She faces Wesley Kash, a farmer and lawyer from Scheller, whose campaign appears to be funded almost entirely with about $300,000 in loans from his family members.

Bryant served six years in the Illinois House before running for the Senate in 2020. Before entering politics, she spent 20 years working for the Illinois Department of Corrections. Her campaign finance reports showed more than $277,000 cash on hand at the beginning of the year and she has raised a considerable amount since then, including donations from both industry and labor groups.

More competitive primaries are being waged in districts where incumbent senators are stepping down.

In the 37th District in northern Illinois, for example, a three-way race is underway to succeed retiring Sen. Win Stoller, R-East Peoria. They include Li Arellano Jr., a former mayor of Dixon who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in 2022; Henry County Board member Tim Yager; and Chris Bishop, a former teacher and high school wrestling coach who now works in crop insurance.

That race has divided the two House members who represent the area. Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, has endorsed Yager, who has led the pack in fundraising. Rep. Brad Fritts, R-Dixon, has endorsed Bishop.

And in the 53rd District of eastern Illinois, a four-way race is underway to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Bennett, R-Gibson City.

Bennett served eight years in the Illinois House before he was appointed to the Senate in 2023 to replace former Sen. Jason Barickman, who resigned.

The field to fill that seat this year includes Bennett’s former chief of staff, Susan Winn Bence, of Watseka; Grundy County Board member Chris Balkema, of Channahon; farmer Jesse Faber, of Pontiac; and Livingston County Board member Mark Kirkton, of Gridley.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Peter Hancock is a Capitol News Illinois reporter based in Springfield, Illinois.