Illinois GOP gubernatorial candidate Jesse Sullivan hopes to flip state red
CHICAGO - Jesse Sullivan prides himself on being a "true conservative" and argues he can turn a deep blue Illinois red in November with his bid for governor.
At 38 years old, he would be America's youngest governor and among the youngest governors in Illinois' history. But he first has to win a heated fight for the Republican nomination on June 28. Then he'd have to face off against incumbent Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who Sullivan insists is too busy already "running for president" ahead of 2024.
Sullivan, the founder of the venture capital firm Alter Global, vows to be a change agent in Springfield and points to the stunning election of Republican Glenn Youngkin in Virginia as a roadmap to pull off a similar victory in the Land of Lincoln.
Illinois GOP gubernatorial candidate Jesse Sullivan. (Jesse Sullivan)
He's a self-described "outsider" who still has deep roots in central Illinois, currently residing on farmland growing corn and soybeans in his hometown of Petersburg with his family. And on the campaign trail, he touts his business background and his time overseas as an Army civilian to appeal to voters.
During an interview this week with Fox News Digital, Sullivan was asked about the issues facing Illinois, his political vulnerabilities and how he sees a conservative Republican being elected in a liberal stronghold.
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Amid ongoing inflation and concerns of a recession, Sullivan's economic plan to relieve the financial burden on Illinois residents includes lifting the state's grocery tax and repealing Pritzker's gas tax hike. He calls his ambition to eliminate the state's income tax his "North Star," hoping all of his financial incentives will turn around Illinois' dwindling population and prevent residents from fleeing his state.
"I'm a business guy. I come from a business background… These Democrats, especially from Illinois, they want to tax our way out of our debt problem in this state. That's never going to work. Anyone who can flee this state is fleeing the state. 120,000 people left the state of Illinois alone last year… I feel we need a commitment to growth," Sullivan said. "We need to look more like Texas and Florida, not in New York and California."
Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made headlines earlier this month vowing to make Illinois a "safe haven" and an "oasis" for abortions in the Midwest after the leaked draft from the Supreme Court signaled the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Sullivan, who promises to be "the most pro-life governor in the history of the state of Illinois," accused the Democratic duo of being "the extremists on this issue" while he is calling to celebrate "a culture of life."
"J.B. Pritzker, it's late-term, partial-birth abortions. It is no parental notification for minors so 13- and 14-year-olds can come from around the nation to the state of Illinois, they don't even need to notify their parents that this is happening… and guess who's paying the bill?" he asked. "The taxpayers of Illinois, already one of the highest tax states in the nation, and now we're going to be paying for abortions across the entire Midwest."
While he vowed to "push back" on late-term and partial-birth abortions, Sullivan refrained to offer an exact number when asked how many weeks into the pregnancy should abortions be illegal, citing the "supermajority of Democrats" in the state legislature that has already allowed Illinois to become "the most pro-abortion state in the nation."
Jesse Sullivan, his wife Monique and their seven children. (Jesse Sullivan)
Another "North Star" Sullivan pointed to is school choice for Illinois parents and unveiled a new policy proposal this week that would give parents a "Backpack Scholarship" so they can send their child to the school of their choice. He also introduced a "Parents' Bill of Rights," inspired by Florida's Parental Rights in Education law that would demand transparency about the mental and physical health of their children.
Regarding the trans athlete debate over allowing biological males to compete in women's sports, Sullivan insisted "boys should not be in girls' sports" but stopped short of saying he'd take action as governor on the issue.
Sullivan's "Day One" promises via executive order would be eliminating any COVID-era mask and vaccine mandate to make Illinois a "state of freedom" again. When it comes to working with the Democrat-controlled state legislature, however, he expressed hope that together they can tackle high taxes, corruption, crime and the education system, but seemed pessimistic that much can ultimately get done. He is putting more faith in a strong Republican turnout in November that could diminish the Democrats' grip in Springfield.
"We need to get out of this supermajority of Democrats so I have veto power. Because I'm going to bring out a Sharpie as big as Donald Trump's and I'll write ‘VETO,' you know… I refuse to raise taxes on the people of Illinois and I will veto any new tax that comes across my desk because we don't have a revenue problem in Illinois, we have a spending problem," he said.
Sullivan is optimistic that he can at least work with Democrats to address Illinois' unfunded pension crisis.
On the subject of crime, which continues to plague Chicago, Sullivan vowed to repeal what he describes as Pritzker's "anti-police" law that eliminated cash bail and restricts the power of law enforcement. He touted having the most endorsements of active sheriffs because he's "protect and serve at my core."
"We are going to make families safe again in the state of Illinois and we're going to push back against the state prosecutors like Kim Fox, George Soros-funded prosecutors that are soft on crime, coddling criminals, treating them like they're the victims," Sullivan told Fox News Digital.
Sullivan tore into Pritzker for his inaction in quelling the violence that erupted in Chicago as part of the nationwide unrest in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd.
"J.B. Pritzker treats this situation like Chicago is not a part of his jurisdiction. Chicago is a part of the state of Illinois and when you're governor, you step up to do the job and he would not actually surge the National Guard when it was needed," Sullivan asserted. "During the riots, burning cop cars, creating all the havoc that they did down on the Magnificent Mile, he cared more about politics and the perception… I would be surging in the National Guard to make sure we treat it like the crisis that it is."
Sullivan argued that he is the strongest GOP candidate to face off against Pritzker because he can "turn out the conservative base" and "bring over those independents and disaffected Democrats."
He took aim at his primary rivals, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, who he accused of being "way too liberal for an Illinois Republican primary," and Illinois State Senator Darren Bailey, who he admitted is a "great conservative" but pointed to one of his "first acts" in politics which was co-sponsoring a bill that would "separate Chicago from downstate," saying he cannot earn key votes in the Windy City.
The Irvin campaign has repeatedly attacked Sullivan for suggesting he has falsified his military service since he was an Army civilian on behalf of the Department of Defense instead of serving among the rank and file, telling Fox News Digital he worked as a Human Terrain Analyst for a seven-month tour in Afghanistan whose task was to set up local police forces all while wearing a U.S. Army uniform.
"This was sacred service to me," Sullivan said. "Richard Irvin can try to take this and use it for political gain and try to, you know, take my good name and try to run it through the mud for his own political purposes, but the citizens of Illinois will see right through it."
When asked if he would pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee in a general election, Sullivan said "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it" but assured he would not support Pritzker.
Sullivan has also been attacked by the Irvin campaign for having voted for Barack Obama. When asked about his presidential voting record, Sullivan suggested back in college, he fell for the "lie" that Democrats "cared most about people in poverty" and later realized it was conservative policies that lifts families out of poverty. He pointed to the political evolutions of the "greatest conservatives" like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, saying they "lived their way into their conservative values."
When asked if he supported Obama in both 2008 and 2012, Sullivan sidestepped the question, saying, "I have not voted for a Democrat, you know, in a decade."
During a meeting among the GOP candidates with the Chicago Tribune editorial board on Tuesday, Sullivan was among those who said they voted for Trump in 2020. But when Fox News specifically asked Sullivan if he had supported Trump in the primary and in the 2016 election, he did not offer a direct response.
While Sullivan didn't get specific as to how long he's supported Trump, he appeared to adopt the former president's America First agenda, hoping to channel it in Illinois as governor.
"If you're looking for Donald Trump's America First policies in Illinois, then I'm your guy," Sullivan told voters. "If you compare Donald Trump's to Joe Biden's policies whether it's law enforcement, or you know, on inflation and the economy or if it's pushing back on the border, you know, pushing back against the extremes of the far left, being pro-life and putting in judges, like, those are all the America First values. I want to make them Illinois First values."
Sullivan said he would welcome Trump's endorsement but his campaign's focus is on earning the support of everyday Illinois citizens.
Sullivan is seeking to assure voters he will not be a repeat of Bruce Rauner, a Republican who won the governorship in 2014 but was ousted in 2018 after one, stalemated term in office.
"They have a very clear distinction between who Bruce Rauner was, who was a billionaire from Chicago, with a downstate guy who grew up working on a farm... not all outsiders are created equal," Sullivan said.
"I have an iron will rooted in my Christian faith. And that is the way that I will lead," he added. "People will be able to trust that I will be an Abraham Lincoln conservative and Republican."
Fox News' David Rutz contributed to this report.