SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — With early voting weeks away, it’s campaign season in Illinois and local TV is flooded with candidate commercials.

The hottest contest in the June 28 primary is the race for the Republican nomination for governor.

Monday night in downstate Tazewell County, the local GOP hosted a candidate forum. Five of the six invited candidates showed up. Organizers left an empty chair for Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin.

State Senator Darren Bailey pounded.

“So I sit here and I look at this empty seat tonight and I think of a mayor of the highest tax city, a sanctuary city, in the state of Illinois and I think of someone who sits and prefers to stay in his basement rather than to come and face me,” Bailey said.

The Irvin campaign says the candidate missed the event due to a prior commitment.

But since entering the race in late January, Irvin has kept a low profile, steering clear of the press and large campaign rallies. Some party officials question the strategy.

“Look, he’s got a lot of good things to say, he really does. But I just wish he’d come down here and meet the people and talk to them about his solutions and his vision but he seems to be afraid to do that,” said Tazewell County Republicans chairman Jim Rule.

Wealthy Republican donors are picking sides. Illinois’ richest man, Ken Griffin, has donated $20 million to the Irvin campaign. Billionaire Richard Uihlein has pledged $2.5 million to Bailey.

Baily and Irvin are keeping an eye on each other, throwing punches over support for former Presdient Donald Trump.

In violation of the election code, the Irvin campaign sent out this mailer quoting Bailey discussing pulling a Democratic ballot in 2008, possibly casting a vote for then-vice president candidate Joe Biden.

But Irvin himself has voted in past Democratic primaries.

“When you pulled a Democratic ballot in 2016, did you vote for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?” WGN News asked Irvin in a February sitdown.

“Listen, I’m a Republican,” Irvin responded.

“Did you vote for Donald Trump in 2020?” WGN News asked.

“Listen, that’s exactly what J.B. Pritzker wants us to be talking about. He wants us talking about anything but his record in the state,” Irvin responded.

Promising to crack down on crime, Irvin is carefully highlighting possible strengths in a head-to-head against Democrat J.B. Pritzker.

“There’s nothing the left fears more than Republicans who look like me and think like us,” Irvin said.

In a sign Democrats take Irvin seriously, they’re meddling in the GOP primary. In one ad, the Democratic Governors Association attacks Irvin over his work as a criminal defense attorney.

Bailey is catering to the GOP base reminding voters he fought Governor Pritzker’s COVID mitigations.

“I sued Governor Pritzker and we won,” Bailey said.

Also in the race is venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan. He started his campaign with more than $10 million from out-of-state donations. He’s using the cash to pitch himself as a political outsider.

“If you want to know my governing philosophy, it’s this: take power away from these corrupt, career insider politicians and give it back to the people of Illinois,” Sullivan said.

Schaumberg businessman Gary Rabine, CEO of his family’s driveway paving business, is running on a platform to ease government regulations and cut taxes. Specifically, he wants a 50% reduction in property taxes by 2024.

“We must seek out the best minds and wisdom to make major change in anything we do,” Rabine said. “I’ve done this all my life in my businesses and we’re going to do this in the state of Illinois.”

Former State Senator Paul Schimpf is trying to distinguish himself as the moderate in the race.

“Our campaign is running on parents’ rights, support for law enforcement so that we can have safe communities and families, and restoring trust in government,” Schimpf said.

Max Solomon, an attorney, who reported just $1,900 in his campaign bank account at the end of March, is waging an uphill battle.

“I identify as a Christian, conservative, Republican,” Solomon said. “And it’s in that order.”

Fed up with Pritzker, the Republican faithful like what they hear.

“We have to stand up to the plate and fight for our freedom every day,” said Republican voter Mary Burress.

“Family values, we all want our children to have freedom and I think we’re not giving them that freedom that more,” said Ken McClintock.

GOP activists may be fired up, but some traditionally Republican voters like the ones we talked to at Avanti’s, an Italian restaurant in Peoria, are still not paying attention to the campaign.

“I have no idea who’s running,” Dale Bruda told WGN News.

Then there are people like Diana and Duane Currington, who the GOP must reconnect with before November.

“I am a registered Republican and I haven’t voted Republican in years,” Dianna Currington said. “I don’t like their candidates and I don’t like their policies anymore.”

Added Duane Currington: “I don’t care if he’s a Democrat or a Republican if he gets the job done.”

The race is set but there will likely be twists and turns. The biggest wild card could be Trump and whether he chooses to endorse one of the candidates.