Eye On Illinois: As primary field fills, a reminder of voters’ power

And now there are three.

Monday night in Effingham, state Sen. Darren Bailey announced his candidacy for governor. The Xenia Republican spent 17 years on the North Clay School Board before beginning a rapid political ascent: elected to the state House in 2018, the Senate in 2020 and now seeking the state’s top office.

In addition to Bailey, the primary field includes former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, of Waterloo, and businessman Gary Rabine, of Bull Valley. If recent history is any indication, the slate isn’t complete.

In 2014, Bruce Rauner defeated three primary foes — state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, plus Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford. Brady and Dillard finished one-two in the 2010 primary field, ahead of five other contestants. Brady finished third in a five-person ballot in 2006; the winner was Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka. In 2002, Attorney General Jim Ryan beat two challengers in 2002.

Rauner won his first primary with 40.13% of the vote — 328,934. In 2010 Brady needed just 20.26%, or 155,527 votes. Topinka captured 38.15% in 2006, 280,701 votes. In 2002 Brady got 410,074 votes, or 44.68%.

The last time a non-incumbent Republican got a majority in a gubernatorial primary was when George Ryan trounced Chad Koppie in 1998, garnering 608,940 votes to win 86.08%-13.92%.

The last two times an incumbent Republican sought a second term as governor they first had to fend off a primary foe. Rauner beat state Rep. Jeanne Ives 51.53%-48.47% in 2018 before losing to JB Pritzker. In 1994, Gov. Jim Edgar got 75% of the votes in his primary against businessman Jack Roeser, then went on to win reelection in one of the biggest landslides in state history.

These numbers don’t predict which candidate might win or who else might join the fray — the primary still is at least 13 months away — but they do help illustrate how comparatively few votes it takes to reach the big ballot.

In 2018, a total of 4,245,497 voters backed either Rauner or Pritzker in the general. Together in the primary, those candidates combined for only 969,880, not even 23% of the general election total. As of Friday, the Illinois State Board of Elections said there are more than 8.3 million active registered voters. Neither party has turned out more than 1 million voters in a gubernatorial primary since 36.5% of 1.25 million Democrats chose Rod Blagojevich in 2002.

A handful of gubernatorial hopefuls are hardly the most important people in a state facing so many challenges, so this column won’t handicap the horse race. Still, a quick look at the numbers shows how much power rests with each individual voter, and I have no reservations about encouraging readers to flex those muscles.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.