At a local restaurant meet-and-greet, Darren Bailey led his audience in prayer, then suggested reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before failing to find an American flag in the room. The stars and stripes were spotted on Brandon Baston’s T-shirt and Bailey summoned the 37-year-old Walmart employee to turn and face the audience.

Say what you want about Bailey, he’s adaptable. The 57-year-old southern Illinois farmer was a rookie Republican state representative when he catapulted to statewide notoriety in 2020 by filing a lawsuit against Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 restrictions. He jumped to the Senate the following year and from there bested better-financed candidates to win the 2022 GOP nomination for governor. That earned him the cherished endorsement of former President Donald Trump before losing to Pritzker in a state where Democrats have a virtual lock on power.

Now, he’s challenging a five-term Republican representative, and after talking up a repeat endorsement, he’s been forced to adapt again: Trump chose the incumbent, Rep. Mike Bost. Disappointed, Bailey now says Trump’s choice “didn’t move the needle much,” though his “grassroots movement” also trails Bost badly in the money race.

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As it winds down to a March 19 primary showdown, the race could be seen as a measure of Trump’s clout. Bost is a popular incumbent, but he’s running in a time and place where disdain for government is white-hot. Establishment Republicans are angry their man has to face an intraparty challenge, which is the attitude Bailey argues needs to be dislodged. But it will be up to voters to decide whether adaptability and hard work are enough to overcome incumbency, tenure and an endorsement from the nation’s Republican leader.

“Being a farmer, you have good years, you have bad years. When you have those bad years, you buckle down, and you work harder,” Bailey said. “We keep going because people need encouragement. They’re frustrated, they’re concerned. We bring hope and they know that they’re going to have somebody who’s going to be fighting for them.”

Bost, a 64-year-old Murphysboro resident, is campaigning on experience. The Marine Corps veteran is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and sits on the committees for Agriculture, Transportation and Infrastructure. With tenure comes knowhow and relationships that help him help his district, he said.

“I’m at the place where we can have the most benefit for the people in my district, whether it’s in constituent service or moving legislation or knowing and understanding the issues,” Bost said. “Right now, the United States and the world are facing some very large issues and we don’t need some person going in there on the first day for on-the-job training.”

But Bost is still getting to know a large chunk of his constituency. Instead of occupying a cozy corner in southwestern Illinois, the current 12th District, redrawn after the 2020 Census, now encompasses much of the previously adjacent 15th District, what Monroe County Republican Central Committee Chairman Ed McLean calls the “Eastern Bloc.”

In all, it is 34 counties making up the bottom one-third of the state. While Trump won the old 12th District with at least 55% of the vote in 2016 over Hillary Clinton and in 2020 against President Joe Biden, he twice took more than 70% of the tally in the former 15th.

The issues are clear: Bucking any regulation on the right to possess firearms, fighting inflation, opposing abortion and locking down the U.S. southern border, an issue that’s exploded in Illinois because of the arrival of 36,000 migrants who have crossed the border and have been transported largely from Texas. It’s a race to win the hearts and minds of true Trump conservatives.

In few places is that clearer than in Casey, a town of 3,300 in the northeast “Eastern Bloc” — and an hour’s drive from Bailey’s home in Xenia — which is known for its collection of “World’s Largest” things: wind chime, golf tee, rocking chair and more.

“America should be ‘America first,’” said 71-year-old Casey resident Marlene Watts. “We have always been a nation where you can help the ones that are poor and needy. But right now, the (migrants) come before us. The American people are sort of last now.”

Bailey flaunts ratings showing Bost’s conservative voting record on par with former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, now reviled by the right. Bost scoffs, maintaining that the group cherry-picks votes it reviews and reciting a litany of endorsements aside from Trump’s.

In 2014, Bost flipped a district that had not elected a Republican in seven decades — the legendary Melvin Price reigned for 43 of those years. But Bost calls himself a “governing conservative,” explaining that he’s “not willing to burn down everything in Washington just so I can keep 100% of what I’m asking for.”

The jab at Bailey references the challenger’s affiliations with firebrands such as GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who campaigned for Bailey and is among a contingent that frowns on cooperating with Democrats in Congress.

Will Stephens, who holds the nonpartisan post of Murphysboro mayor and has volunteered on Bost campaigns since he was a teenager, likens Bailey to former professional boxer Reggie Strickland, who over 19 years in the ring compiled a record of 66-276 but took on all comers.

Stephens said Bailey will “go to Washington — he’s going to do a performance-artist fight and he’s not going to win any fights,” Stephens said. “Then he’s going to send you an email and ask you to send him some money for his campaign.”

Bailey counters that he’s willing to compromise with Democrats when they abandon extreme positions such as an “open border” or what he considers public school moralizing.

“When you have these radicals that want to hijack and destroy public education, when you have these radicals that want to destroy life, it makes it awful difficult to compromise with that,” Bailey said. “I’ve got a pretty good track record of working with Democrats on particular bills. That wall’s never existed.”

As in many political races, money might be decisive. In the second half of 2023, Bost took in $1 million, spent $574,000 and had $1.36 million in the bank at year’s end. Bailey had $326,000 in contributions, spent $209,000 and had $117,000 on hand.

It’s money Bost shouldn’t have to spend, according to McLean, the Monroe County chairman.

“Darren Bailey is stirring up the Eastern Bloc Republicans to turn against a seated Republican,” McLean said. “Why doesn’t he take out a Democrat?”