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Trump-backed U.S. Rep. Bost touts experience amid challenge from ‘outsider’ Darren Bailey

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost scored a major win when former President Donald Trump recently endorsed him over Darren Bailey in the Republican primary for the 12th Congressional District.

CASEY, Ill. — In a southern Illinois town described by a local librarian as “Mayberry-esque,” a deep red community of about 2,400 people is deciding whether the support of former President Donald Trump is enough to send U.S. Rep. Mike Bost back to Congress instead of his grassroots challenger, Darren Bailey.

Bost was endorsed by Trump on Feb. 20, giving a hefty stamp of approval in the most conservative congressional district in Illinois.

It’s an endorsement Bailey staunchly fought for, making multiple visits to Mar-a-Lago and a fundraiser in downstate Effingham featuring Donald Trump Jr. Both Bost and Bailey were endorsed by Trump in 2022, and they’re both campaigning with beaming images of themselves alongside Trump.

Elected in 2015, Bost has been a loyal foot soldier for the former president, showing consistent support that included voting against the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Bailey calls the race a battle of “America First vs. D.C. Swamp,” while Bost has rounded up as much Make America Great Again support as he can get to prove his loyalty.

Darren Bailey and Donald Trump pose together for a photograph
Former President Donald Trump (left) poses with former Illinois Republican gubernatorial nominee Darren Bailey at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, N.J. | Photo from Faceboo Facebook

Bailey, a downstate farmer and former state senator, won the GOP primary for governor in 2022 and tanked in the general election thanks to millions spent against him by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. He’s calling himself the “conservative outsider” and aligns himself with some of the most conservative members of Congress, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla, who has campaigned for him in Illinois, and Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill.

He told the Sun-Times he would love to join the Freedom Caucus if elected.

“I’m proud of what the Freedom Caucus believes and stands for and fights for and yes, I definitely see myself aligning with that,” Bailey said. “Because I think when more people actually stand on their morals and values, that’s when we begin to truly create some change and turn things around for the betterment of the people.”

Running for his fifth term, Bost is the chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and a self-described “constitutional conservative.” He was elected to Congress after serving as an Illinois state representative for 20 years. He’s campaigning heavily on his experience — and now, on Trump’s endorsement.

Darren Bailey campaigns at Crossroads Restaurant & Bar in north suburban Mundelein in 2022 during his failed bid for Illinois governor.
Darren Bailey campaigns at Crossroads Restaurant & Bar in north suburban Mundelein in 2022 during his failed bid for Illinois governor. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Bost says he doesn’t have to prove just how conservative he is — and his work in three committees, Veterans’ Affairs, Agriculture and Transportation & Infrastructure, shows he is prioritizing southern Illinois.

“That gives an advantage to the Illinois 12th District, as well as the state of Illinois and the nation,” Bost said. “And the fact that I’m in a position where I work with every member of Congress at one time or another — because every one of them have veterans in their district that need help — and we try to make sure our veterans are provided for. … By doing that, it develops relationships that you can’t develop by the first day you walk in.”

Border policies a key issue for downstate voters

On a cloudy February day, two natives of Casey told the Sun-Times they are undecided as Election Day approaches. They are both Trump supporters — but the former president’s endorsement of Bost still left them with some questions, including where both candidates stand on border policies.

“I do a lot of research, and let me put it this way, I’m not done researching them,” Brian Hammond, 62, said. Hammond said he reads a downstate Charleston newspaper, watches local coverage of politics, and cross-checks that information with CBS News.

Jerry, an 85-year-old resident who didn’t want to provide his last name, said he wants to understand why Bailey keeps saying Bost “is for amnesty for illegals.”

“I’m not going to take his word on that,” he said.

Bailey has accused Bost of voting for policies that offered “amnesty” to illegal immigrants. The amnesty accusation is in reference to Bost’s bipartisan votes on three immigration bills. And one of the measures, a 2018 immigration measure, was supported by Trump.

Trump carried the 12th District in 2020 with 56% of the vote. In Clark County, which includes the town of Casey, a resounding 74.5% voted for Trump. But both Casey voters said the Trump endorsement won’t impact their decision.

In this April 23, 2020 file image from video, Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., speaks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., speaks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in April 2020. AP

If Trump is convicted, Bost would still support him

Bost said he hears from constituents who are disappointed in the disarray in the House, including former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster in October. Some incumbents are fearful of how the instability might translate into elections, and as of Feb. 23, 21 Republican members of Congress had chosen not to run for reelection.

He pinned the “drama” on the far right, some of the same figures Bailey is aligning with.

“The sad reality of the drama is it was caused by eight individuals who sided with the Democrats. That’s as simple as that. And does that mean they’re not supporting the Republicans? No,” Bost said. “It means that they’re concerned. They might like Mike Johnson. They had to question Kevin McCarthy. … A few are holding hostage the ability to move certain things. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t got a lot done.”

The Murphysboro Republican accused the far right, and left, for that matter, of making decisions to get attention.

“It feels more important to get likes on their social media than it is to actually govern, And more importantly, get on 24-hour news networks to bring up their popularity,” Bost said. “And I don’t do this to be popular, for my ego. Let’s put it that way. I do it because I’ve got children, and now grandchildren.”

Fresh off his endorsement, the congressman said Trump’s four criminal cases are only emboldening his supporters. And Bost said he would still support the former president if he is convicted.

The congressman was in his office when the Capitol was breached on Jan. 6, 2021, interrupting a joint session of Congress that was affirming the results of the 2020 presidential election. Bost said it was not an insurrection, but instead, an “out-of-control mob.”

“What we had was a very bad riot, a time that I do not condone anybody who did damage or broke into our Capitol. Let me be very clear on that,” Bost said. “But let me tell you that the word insurrection and the charge of insurrection had never been — well the word has been used — but the charges have never been shown in legal matters. That’s why I don’t think you’ll see a conviction.”

Bailey campaigns on Christian values in government

While Bost tries to convince voters he will support measures to help southern Illinois, Bailey is campaigning on the word “no.” He said his consistent no votes on legislation in the Illinois House and Senate make his case that larger government and more money is not the answer.

“Most of the time in Springfield, no was the answer because that allows you to continually remind the people that we need less government and need fewer bills, fewer laws,” Bailey said.

Bailey is largely emulating his gubernatorial campaign, with the same top staffers, frequent social media posts and a busy in-person tour of towns. He said he has refused “a lot of PAC money,” and his cash is coming from “truly southern Illinois constituent money.”

That said, Bailey is being vastly outpaced in fundraising by Bost. The congressman had more than $1.3 million cash in his war chest at the end of December — and Bailey had just $117,485, records show. But Bailey said he plans to use any remaining contributions to buy TV ads in the waning weeks of the campaign.

Bailey said he wouldn’t vote for any border policies if elected and said Biden should “close the border right now, today.”

“We don’t need to vote for anything,” Bailey said. “For 250 years, we’ve been allowing people to come into this country and somehow or another, it got muddled down to the point to where somebody figured out, well, we can just come across the border because there’s no safeguard there.”

Former President Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump endorsed U.S. Rep. Mike Bost over Darren Bailey in the Republican primary for the 12th congressional district. Steven Senne/AP

Bailey is also downplaying the Trump endorsement, saying, “It just makes us work a little harder.” His campaign touted it as an example of the former president’s support of Republican incumbents.

Bailey, who founded a Christian school in downstate Louisville with his wife, Cindy, also said he staunchly believes the country’s history is intertwined with biblical heritage — and that heritage should play a role in government.

“I think that it’s important that we return to that, and we can return to that without isolating and shutting out everybody else. We can do that. I think it’s important that we keep our heritage,” Bailey said. “I believe the church has a pivotal role to play in government because I think we’re losing moral high ground, and when we lose that, then we lose everything.”

Illinois Public Radio

Illinois Public Radio

Illinois Newsroom gets stories from public radio stations from across the state, including WBEZ-Chicago, WCBU-Peoria, WGLT-Normal, WVIK-Rock Island, WIUM-Macomb, WNIJ-DeKalb, WSIU-Carbondale, WUIS-Springfield, and St. Louis Public Radio.

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