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Trump support may not be enough to save Bost in Illinois

House chairman locked in competitive race against 2022 gubernatorial nominee

Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., is in a competitive primary against the GOP's candidate for governor last year.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., is in a competitive primary against the GOP's candidate for governor last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee is at risk of losing his primary on Tuesday. 

Illinois Republican Mike Bost was first elected in 2014 with a reputation for being a bomb-throwing outsider. Democrats thought his viral rant on the floor of the state legislature was a liability in his initial race, when in fact it resonated with voters in southern Illinois. A decade later, Bost is being labeled as the establishment candidate against a challenger who might be failing up the political ladder.

Former state legislator Darren Bailey lost the 2022 race for governor to Democratic incumbent J.B. Pritzker by more than a dozen points statewide, but finished ahead of the governor in Illinois’ 12th District by 48 points, 73-25 percent. While Illinois is solidly blue, the 12th District is closer to Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana than it is to Chicago in its proximity and politics.

Most primary challengers struggle to match the incumbent in name ID, but Bailey’s recent high-profile campaign made him better-known and better-liked than Bost among GOP voters, even though Bailey didn’t win the gubernatorial election overall. That dynamic makes this competitive contest unique.

Typically, incumbents lose primaries if they aren’t paying attention, get outspent or are saddled with scandal. Redistricting could also complicate their reelection, or they could get on the wrong side of someone influential, such as former President Donald Trump. None of those factors is present in this race, and yet Bost is still in trouble. 

Bost and allies have dramatically outspent Bailey, nearly $1.4 million to $164,000, according to AdImpact. That includes $851,000 from the Bost campaign, $318,000 from American Action Network, and $204,000 coordinated with Bost and the state Republican Party. But that doesn’t include money spent by Democrats against Bailey in the 2022 primary and general elections for governor, attacking him as too conservative. 

Polling limited

Limited public polling by lesser-known firms showed Bailey and Bost with similar standing among primary voters. A July 5-8, 2023 survey by Cor Strategies showed Bost with a 54 percent favorable, 8 percent unfavorable rating compared to Bailey’s 55 percent favorable, 14 percent unfavorable. A poll for the Bailey campaign conducted Jan. 16-18 showed Bost at 64 percent favorable, 8 percent unfavorable and Bailey at 70 percent favorable, 11 percent unfavorable. And a more recent survey conducted by M3 Strategies showed Bost with a 65 percent favorable, 18 percent unfavorable rating and Bailey at 61 percent favorable, 22 percent unfavorable. 

Strategists who have seen other numbers don’t dispute that dynamic in the race, although there’s some discrepancy on who has been ahead. Bost led Bailey 43 percent to 37 percent in the Cor Strategies poll last July. The Bailey campaign had its candidate ahead in August (50 percent to 39 percent) and January (48 percent to 44 percent). And the M3 Strategies poll from a couple weeks ago showed Bost with an edge of 45 percent to 39 percent. Even if the congressman is leading, that’s not a position of strength for an incumbent in the final weeks.

In a competitive Republican primary like this one, Trump’s endorsement can usually push a candidate to the top. But that’s not necessarily the case in this race. 

“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,” the former president said a month ago on his social media platform, Truth Social. “He is working hard to secure the border, champion American agriculture, strengthen the military, grow the economy, and protect and defend our under-siege Second Amendment. Mike Bost has my complete and total endorsement!”

‘Fights like Trump’

But that hasn’t stopped Bailey from attacking the congressman on those issues and blurring the lines on Trump. Bailey criticized Bost for  “failing to finish Trump’s wall” in one TV ad. Bailey’s campaign signs include “Fights Like Trump,” and the challenger leaves uninformed potential voters at local events with the impression that he has Trump’s support, while leaving out the fact that he’s apparently talking about Trump’s endorsement in the 2022 race for governor, according to local sources. 

On the surface, Trump’s endorsement of Bost in this race looks like everything the incumbent would need to survive, but it’s not clear whether potential primary voters are aware of the distinction in Trump’s endorsements from cycle to cycle and race to race.

Bost also has support from the Illinois Farm Bureau, National Rifle Association, Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.

Bailey has support from Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., and her husband, state Rep. Chris Miller. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who tangled with Bost in the House battles over the speaker’s gavel last year, campaigned for Bailey in the district. Outside help from the Club for Growth or Trump allies never materialized, and yet Bailey is still within striking distance of Bost. He’s enjoyed a time advantage on the campaign trail while the incumbent needed to spend time in Washington for committee hearings and votes. 

Bost would be the second incumbent to lose reelection this cycle, although Alabama Republican Rep. Jerry Carl’s loss should be credited to redistricting and the fact that he faced a fellow incumbent, Republican Rep. Barry Moore, and not some sort of anti-incumbent sentiment.

But Bost’s loss would still be striking because of his support from Trump and lack of scandal. And it could change the complexion of the Republican conference on Capitol Hill. 

While Bost came to Congress with a reputation of a crazed man, he’s become a more serious legislator. Bailey, a former state senator, is much more of a wild card. In Illinois, he’s part of a group known as the Eastern Bloc Republicans (along with Chris Miller), who formally aligned with the State Freedom Caucus Network in 2022. And he could align himself with some of the more provocative members of Congress.

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