Illinois GOP gubernatorial candidates have debate date drama

Illinois statehouse
Republican candidates vying for Illinois governor are split over which of two debates they will attend on the same night. Seth Perlman / Associated Press
Illinois statehouse
Republican candidates vying for Illinois governor are split over which of two debates they will attend on the same night. Seth Perlman / Associated Press

Illinois GOP gubernatorial candidates have debate date drama

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There’s a debate over debates in the Republican field for Illinois governor.

Two Chicago television stations have scheduled a debate for the six-way field within an hour of one another on the same day, May 24, and, for now, it appears neither event will include the full group of candidates seeking the party’s nomination.

Earlier this week, there was a candidates’ forum near Peoria, where a “prior commitment” kept Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin from attending. The other five candidates were there, and Irvin’s spot was represented on stage by an empty chair.

The chaotic wrinkle involving the dual debates has only amplified claims from State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, that Irvin is strategically avoiding any politically risky, face-to-face encounters with his challengers ahead of the June 28 primary.

“Democrat Richard Irvin continues to hide in his basement and only come out when his handpicked reporters try to sabotage a statewide debate for a station with less coverage and softer questions for him,” Bailey said in a fiery statement issued by his campaign.

Bailey committed to the May 24 debate being hosted by WGN-TV, which has a more expansive broadcast reach because it’s carried on numerous cable systems across Illinois. Irvin, meanwhile, opted to attend the NBC Chicago event instead of WGN’s.

“It’s clear Irvin prefers the undercard because he’s afraid of a real fight,” said Bailey, who has questioned Irvin’s past voting record in Democratic primaries considering he’s vying for the GOP nomination to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker this fall.

Irvin also has needled Bailey for voting Democratic in the past.

As for the debate, Irvin sidestepped any back-and-forth with Bailey in announcing his choice to be at the NBC debate.

“I look forward to sharing the stage with my opponents where my strong record as a veteran, former prosecutor and mayor will prove I am the best candidate to beat J.B. Pritzker and take Illinois back from crime, high taxes and corruption under his watch,” Irvin said.

Buoyed by a $20 million contribution from GOP mega-donor Kenneth Griffin, Irvin far and away has the largest campaign fund in the Republican field. It has enabled him to finance a seemingly constant stream of campaign advertising.

And that could be why he missed the event near Peoria earlier this week and is content to have debate split screens next month with no other commitments for debates beyond that, thus far, one long-time political observer said.

“Irvin doesn’t have much to gain from debating because he has the resources to get his name and his message out there,” said Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “He’s in a position now where he can kind of dictate the terms, and he has leverage.

“He believes they need him a lot more than he needs them, and so he’s certainly comfortable to just sit there and pick the kind of things that he thinks are most advantageous to him, all the time that he’s filling your mailbox and your TV up with ads and stuff,” Redfield continued.

“The rest of the field really doesn’t have the money to compete at that level,” he said.

The next debate milestone is a June 2 event being organized by WLS-TV and the Illinois League of Women Voters.

Earlier this week, the president of the voter-outreach group told WBEZ her organization was still awaiting replies from the various gubernatorial candidates.

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.