For those polled who have picked a candidate, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin had the lead at 24.1 percent, followed by state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, at 19.8 percent, Gary Rabine at 7.8 percent, Jesse Sullivan at 7.3 percent, Max Solomon at 2.3 percent and Paul Schimpf at 1.9 percent.
The poll, by WGN-TV, The Hill and Emerson College, was conducted May 6-8, had a 3 percent margin of error, and methods included cellphone messaging, landline voice response and an online panel.
Bailey's camp was quick to say it shows the primary "is a two-person race for the heart and soul of our Republican Party." Bailey, a former state representative and now state senator, gained notoriety by challenging Gov. JB Pritzker"s executive order authority in court throughout the pandemic, alongside GOP attorney general candidate Thomas DeVore.
He has a staunch conservative voting record in the General Assembly and he's been jockeying for the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. Per the poll, 57.4 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Trump, while 18.8 percent said less likely and the rest said it would make no difference.
The Irvin campaign, meanwhile, said it's Democrats who are propagating Bailey's campaign. The Democratic Governors Association, to which Pritzker has donated millions from his personal fortune over the past five years, has paid for ads attacking Irvin's record as a defense attorney.
Last week the DGA also launched a new ad calling Bailey "too conservative for Illinois," while listing things that might play well in a GOP primary, such as his 100 percent anti-abortion voting record, his National Rifle Association membership and his support for the Trump agenda. The Irvin campaign pegged the total combined spend of his opponents and outside groups in the GOP primary at $22 million, including $8 million directly attacking Irvin.
Irvin's campaign has spent at least $12 million, backed by $45 million from GOP megadonor Ken Griffin, founder of the investment firm Citadel, who was a financial backer of Republican former Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Bailey's biggest backer is another megadonor, Uline founder Richard Uihlein, who at one time backed Rauner but ended up funding his GOP primary challenger in 2018. He's given Bailey $3.5 million.
The DGA ad buys greatly expand Bailey's statewide exposure. "JB Pritzker is in desperation mode, funding a massive increase in TV ad spending to ensure he gets Darren Bailey as his opponent this November, and Darren Bailey is happily accepting Pritzker's assistance," Irvin spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said in a statement. "Darren Bailey's candidacy is so weak he needs JB Pritzker to do his dirty work."
That statement came in an announcement from the Irvin camp that it was launching a new attack ad against Bailey, pegging him as "Pritzker's favorite tax-raising Republican." The "tax-raising" attack is aimed at Bailey's time on the board of the North Clay School District from 1996 to 2012, when he frequently voted to raise tax levies, resulting in an 81 percent property tax increase in the district during his time on the school board.
Bailey has said he appreciates the DGA ads because they show both sides of the political establishment are underestimating him. And he's contended that Irvin is the Democratic plant. "Democrats shouldn't be involved and spending money in our primary," his campaign said in a statement. "Richard Irvin is a career Democrat and puppet of the political elites, and he is meddling in our Republican primary, trying to fool voters with nothing but lies from his basement.
"Darren Bailey is the true conservative in this race who fought Pritzker over his lockdowns and mandates while Irvin was hugging and praising him."
The poll was released two days after Irvin was in Aurora for his first news conference since March. While he called it to publicize a state audit that showed the Illinois Department of Public Health failed to respond quickly to a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at a state-run veterans home in the fall of 2020, reporters largely used the time to drill down on a number of issues Irvin has been avoiding.
He mostly dodged questions, telling reporters "Let me finish" or "Can I finish?" more than 20 times as he restated campaign talking points and attacks rather than answering. A Chicago Tribune headline blared: "GOP candidate for governor Richard Irvin holds a news conference, but dances around questions on abortion, Trump." Among the questions he dodged were those that sought to clarify his votes in the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries and whether he would support Trump in a 2024 election.
"That's exactly what JB Pritzker wants to be talking about," Irvin said.
Except Irvin's camp has accused Bailey and Sullivan of being "never-Trumpers" and attacked Bailey for his own vote in a 2008 Democratic primary.
We"ll see if the Irvin camp views last week's news conference as an indicator that more practice with the media is needed, or if he reverts further into a campaign insulated by the Griffin money.
Pritzker, meanwhile, was pressed on the DGA ads at a May 13 news conference, stating he's not afraid of any Republican candidates, and any attacks against them should be seen elevating "all of the good that Democrats have done in the state and that I as governor have done in the state."
"Darren Bailey has been attacking my policies since day one," Pritzker said. "Certainly if he becomes the Republican nominee, he's gonna be a tough competitor. I'm simply trying to tell everybody who Darren Bailey really is."
Jerry Nowicki is the bureau chief of Capitol News Illinois, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.