Southern Illinois GOP congressional candidates compete for Trump conservatives' votes.

CASEY, Ill.— After praying, Darren Bailey recommended the Pledge of Allegiance at a local restaurant meet-and-greet, but there was no American flag. Bailey called 37-year-old Walmart employee Brandon Baston to turn and face the audience after seeing the stars and stripes on his T-shirt.

Bailey is flexible. In 2020, the 57-year-old southern Illinois farmer became a state celebrity by suing Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker's COVID-19 limitations as a rookie Republican state legislator. The next year, he joined the Senate and defeated better-funded competitors to win the GOP governorship nomination in 2022. That garnered him former President Donald Trump's endorsement before losing to Pritzker in a Democratic-controlled state.

He's fighting a five-term Republican lawmaker, and after promoting a repeat endorsement, Trump endorsed Rep. Mike Bost. Bailey is disappointed that Trump's choice “didn't move the needle much,” but his “grassroots movement” still behind Bost in money.

As it heads to a March 19 primary, the race may reflect Trump's power. Though popular, Bost is running in a period of widespread distrust for government. Bailey wants to change Establishment Republicans' anger that their man faces an intraparty contest. Voters will decide if flexibility and hard work can overcome incumbency, experience, and the GOP's backing.

“Farmers have good and bad years. In tough years, you work harder, Bailey added. We persist because individuals need encouragement. They're angry and worried. We give hope and reassure them that someone will fight for them.”

Murphysboro's 64-year-old Bost is running on experience. The Marine Corps veteran chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee and sits on Agriculture, Transportation, and Infrastructure. He said tenure gives him knowledge and connections to benefit his district.

“I’m at the place where we can have the most benefit for the people in my district, whether it’s constituent service, moving legislation, or understanding issues,” Bost said. “We don't need someone coming in on the first day for on-the-job training right now, when the US and the world are facing some very large issues.”

However, Bost is still getting to know much of his constituency. After the 2020 Census, the 12th District, redesigned, now covers part of the 15th District, which Monroe County Republican Central Committee Chairman Ed McLean labels the “Eastern Bloc.”

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