Four vie in 53rd State Senate GOP primary after challenge overturned

By Bill Dwyer for Chronicle Media

Chris Balkema (Facebook photo)

Jesse Faber (Facebook photo)

Mike Kirkton (Facebook photo)

Susan Wynn Bence (Facebook photo)

The 53rd State Senate District GOP primary ballot will remain crowded after Gridely businessman and farmer Mike Kirkton survived a challenge to his nominating petitions by the slimmest of margins earlier this month.

Kirkton, a retired Army Lt. Colonel who has served as the commissioner from the 3rd District on the Livingston County Board since 2016, announced his candidacy in October.

Under Illinois state law, candidates for state senate are required to file a minimum of 1,000 valid signatures on nominating petitions and submit them to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Kirkton filed just 1,108 signatures, which invariably invites attention from political rivals. On Dec. 11, three individuals from around the 53rd District — Joshua Belter of Pontiac, Matthew Snyder of Benson and Brooke Upton of El Paso filed objections to Kirkton’s nominating petitions with the ISBE.

The objections came just days after three veteran GOP political operatives requested copies of Kirkton’s nominating petitions from the ISBE. The case underwent a record examination on Dec. 26, at the ISBE’s Chicago office.

There were several issues raised in the formal challenge, but the primary objection was too few valid signatures. The examination found Kirkton had 1,002 valid signatures, and a re-examination on technical grounds found five more.

“The candidate’s nomination papers had 1,007 valid signatures, which is seven over the statutory minimum of 1,000,” ISBE hearing officer Mathias W. Delort ruled Jan. 6, recommending that Kirkton’s name be allowed on the March 19 ballot.

That leaves voters four candidates from which to choose, none of whom have been elected to state office before. While all are conservative, they come from a variety of backgrounds.

Besides Kirkton, they include Grundy County Board Chair Chris Balkema, teacher and Livingston County Farm Bureau member Jesse Faber and former Iroquois County Board member and legislative aide Susan Wynn Bence.

The solidly red 53rd District includes all or part of 10 counties, including Tazewell, Peoria, Woodford, McLean, Livingston, Putnam, Bureau, Marshall, Iroquois and LaSalle. In July, Sen. Tom Bennett declined to run for reelection after filling the vacancy left when Sen. Jason Barrickman of Streator resigned after the district was redrawn in 2022.

Kirkton is a fiscal and social conservative who vows to work “to protect the rights of the unborn,” be a “strong voice defending our Second Amendment rights,” and to fight for lower taxes, smaller government and “helping small businesses to grow without government interference.”

Balkema, of Channahon, who works in purchasing for Caterpillar, Inc., was the first to announce in September. A 13-year veteran of the Grundy County Board, he touts his effective leadership and fiscal responsibility over six years as board president. He is pro life, pro Second Amendment, and says he “will work hard to protect the unborn as well as life at all stages.”

Farber, of Pontiac, is an agricultural teacher at Pontiac Township High School. He calls for lower taxes, prioritizing “law and order” and “local control.” In statements to the media, he has said Illinois needs “to make sure people have the ability to create guidelines for their communities reflecting how they wish to live, raise a family, and make a living.”

Wynn Bence, of Watseka, was Tom Bennett’s chief of staff when he served in the Illinois House of Representatives. She has also been a legislative liaison for former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti.

Wynn Bence previously served three terms on the Iroquois County Board and is currently President of the Watseka Area Chamber of Commerce and Chairman for Illinois Rural Partners.