Eye On Illinois: As GOP field grows, turnout and finances will be key

And now there are four.

Almost seven months after state Sen. Darren Bailey became the third entrant into the 2022 Republican gubernatorial primary — following former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, of Waterloo, and Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine — the field grew again last week.

The fourth man in is Jesse Sullivan, a 37-year-old venture capitalist from Petersburg, the seat of Menard County about 30 minutes northwest of Springfield. With 41 weeks between now and the primary, plus new Congressional maps that could inspire a few Capitol Hill veterans to seek new employment, odds are the field will grow again.

The last time a non-incumbent Republican got a true majority in an Illinois gubernatorial primary was, not coincidentally, the last time there were only two on the ballot: George Ryan trounced Chad Koppie in 1998, garnering 608,940 votes to win 86.08%-13.92%.

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 by earning 410,074 votes, or 44.68% of the total. That remains the best GOP primary showing this century, but Ryan still lost the general election by more than 250,000 votes to Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

The less said about Blagojevich the better, but his 2002 primary does have the distinction of being the last where either party turned out more than 1 million voters until 2018, when more than 1.3 million Democrats advanced JB Pritzker from a field of six.

As of Sept. 8 the Illinois State Board of Elections reported the active voter registration total at 8,329,737. In other words, the primary race really does play to a subset of the most politically aware. The more crowded the field, the more likely a steep fundraising advantage or strong turnout operation can make the ultimate difference.

Whoever emerges as the Republican nominee will have to peel voters away from Pritzker, who beat Rauner by roughly 714,000 votes. That’s certainly possible, but the reality of Democrats’ inherent political advantage in Illinois suggest it’s wise for any GOP hopefuls to at least be talking now about how they plan to convince left-leaning voters to support their message.

With not quite five months between the primary and the general, and Pritzker seemingly unopposed in his bid for the ballot, GOP hopefuls running both races concurrently might be an inevitability. No sense handicapping the field now with so much undetermined, but I invite readers to share thoughts they have about the primary or the announced field.

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