Setting the stage for what could become the most hotly contested open-seat race of the cycle, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election next year.
“This is, for me, a sober decision,” Fitzgerald said, announcing at a Chicago press conference he would not run for a second term. He had been considered the most vulnerable incumbent up for re-election this cycle.
The 42-year-old Senator cited the prevailing Democratic winds in a state that then-Vice President Al Gore won by 12 points and his desire to spend more time as a Senator and father than a candidate as reasons for not running. After last year’s elections, Fitzgerald is one of only two remaining Republican statewide officials.
“Any Senate race for a Republican in Illinois would be a challenging run,” he said. “Even so, I believe that if I were to undertake this race, I would win this race, because I know how I run. … I give it everything I have.”
Recent polling showed Fitzgerald faced an uphill battle for a second term and the Senator reportedly told supporters Monday that he lacked the “fire in the belly” required to run again.
“In Illinois, if you don’t have a furnace in the belly, you better not do this,” said a GOP strategist, noting the state has become difficult territory for Republicans in recent years.
“Senator Fitzgerald is not running simply because he is not enjoying his job as much as he’d hope that he would,” the strategist added. “I think it was just not what he imagined.”
At the press conference outside the Union League Club, Fitzgerald also said he wants to spend more time with his 10-year-old son, something the Senator realized would be impossible during a hard-fought race.
“If this were a race in a Republican state, I think I could devote sufficient time to a campaign as well as to my duties as a Senator and father,” he said. “But this is a race in a heavily Democratic state that, for a Republican candidate, will require full-time devotion in order to win.”
Fitzgerald was first elected in 1998, beating embattled Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D), 50 percent to 47 percent. The banking fortune heir spent upwards of $17 million on the race, most of it his own funds.
The news that Fitzgerald would not run sent shockwaves through the GOP establishment late Monday after Fitzgerald began notifying close political allies that he would not seek a second term.
Fitzgerald and the National Republican Senatorial Committee had released a poll over the weekend showing the Senator with a 53 percent favorable to 13 percent unfavorable rating among voters statewide. However, the poll also showed Fitzgerald below the 50 percent mark in matchups against four potential Democratic challengers. Fitzgerald garnered 44 percent to state Comptroller Dan Hynes’ 38 percent in a hypothetical matchup, the strongest showing of all of the Democrats tested.
As Republican campaign operatives in Washington and Illinois sought to size up the newly created open seat, former Gov. Jim Edgar (R) quickly became the most prominent name to surface as a potential candidate.
“I think there will be an effort to get Edgar,” said a top Republican strategist in the state.
While it is unclear whether the former governor, who remains popular after serving two terms in the 1990s, has any interest in the race, many Republicans believe he would all but clear the field if he were to decide to run.
“He’s still a pretty young guy and he’s very popular in the state,” said an Illinois GOP operative. “If Edgar would come out and say he’s running, I think nine-tenths of the [state’s] Republicans would get behind him.”
If efforts to coax the former governor into the race are not successful, Republicans may then look to state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, the chairwoman of the state party and the only remaining GOP statewide elected official.
Aside from Edgar and Topinka, a lengthy list of other potential contenders began amassing with the news. Candidates have until Dec. 16 to file for the March primary.
Among them are former Attorney General Jim Ryan, who ran and lost a gubernatorial bid last year, former Goldman Sachs executive Jack Ryan, who was heavily recruited but declined a 2002 Senate run, and DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom.
Chicago-area businessman Andy McKenna, Jr. and retired Air Force Major General John Borling, both of whom were considering primary challenges against Fitzgerald, are also likely prospects.
With Fitzgerald’s perceived general election vulnerability, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) was among the prominent Republicans leading a public effort to recruit a primary challenger.
A spokesman for LaHood, who has also been mentioned as a possible Senate candidate, said the lawmaker would not comment on the race until Fitzgerald made an official announcement.
Fitzgerald has sparred often with the Illinois Republican establishment during his term, including Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and leaders in the Chicago-area business community. There were clear signs that Fitzgerald planned to use the rift to highlight his independence, in an effort to attract Democratic swing voters, during the campaign.
While the White House had vocally opposed a primary challenge, behind the scenes there were hints that the support was not as strong as had been publicly portrayed. Matters were made worse after Fitzgerald told an Illinois newspaper that President Bush discussed the possible assassination of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with him during a ride on Air Force One.
One top Republican strategist in the state called the White House support of Fitzgerald “just one step above the Bob Smith scenario,” referring to the former New Hampshire Republican Senator who was defeated in a primary last year. In that race, the White House officially backed Smith but did little to help him.
However, consultant David Hill, who worked on Fitzgerald’s 1998 race and conducted the most recent poll, maintained there is no truth to speculation that Fitzgerald was forced out by the White House.
“That is absolutely false and untrue,” Hill said. “That’s an old story and that White House has been very, very outgoing and forthright in backing Fitzgerald publicly, even when forces in Illinois would probably prefer that the President be silent.”
Karl Rove, the top White House political adviser, was Fitzgerald’s direct mail consultant during his 1998 race.
Meanwhile, at least two Members of the state’s Congressional delegation immediately took themselves out of Senate contention Tuesday.
A spokesman for Rep. Jerry Weller (R) unequivocally said his boss would not run to replace Fitzgerald.
“He feels that he can do more for the state of Illinois as a Member of the Ways Committee and an ally of [Hastert],” said Weller spokesman Ben Fowler.
A spokesman for Rep. Mark Kirk (R), an Naval reservist who has a potentially appealing candidate profile, was slightly less definitive.
“The Congressman has no intentions of running for Senate,” said Kirk spokesman Matthew Towson.
An aide to Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said his boss had not even examined the possibility of jumping into the Senate race yet.
“After just having gone through a hectic year-and-a-half race, [Shimkus] is working diligently to serve the residents of the 19th District in the House,” said Steven Tomaszewski, Shimkus’ press secretary.
Ben Pershing and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.