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LaHood Eyes a Tough Task

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) has never been one to shun the spotlight on Capitol Hill. But the Republican’s decision to explore a 2006 gubernatorial bid — and immerse himself in the fractious politics of a seriously troubled state GOP — has taken even some of his colleagues by surprise.

Months after being denied the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee by home-state colleague and Speaker Dennis Hastert, LaHood announced Wednesday that he is considering challenging Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in two years, citing his belief that “our state is in such a mess” financially.

He is the first Republican to formally express interest in the race, although a crowded GOP primary field is likely to emerge eventually.

And while LaHood said he is focused primarily on the Land of Lincoln’s fiscal condition, a more pressing concern in the near term will be the disarray the state Republican Party finds itself in. The state GOP has been beset with difficulties that Hastert, LaHood and other Washington, D.C.-based Republicans have had difficulty avoiding and, in some cases, exacerbated.

Over the weekend, the state central committee was scheduled to meet and elect a new party chairman. The odds-on favorite to lead the beleaguered party has been wealthy paper company executive Andy McKenna Jr., whom LaHood supported in the 2004 Senate primary. McKenna finished fourth in that contest.

While LaHood called the chairmanship election “a new day for our party,” he said the party’s current transition period was not a factor in his decision to look at the 2006 race. Still, listening to him talk about his strengths and what he would offer voters, it’s easy to detect that same “new day” theme.

“I think I am a fresh face for Illinois,” LaHood said. “I haven’t been a part of the same old, same old.”

At the same time, LaHood is also hoping people will relate to his message that he has been a bridge-builder, billing himself as a “progressive conservative” who has worked across party lines.

“I’ve spent my 10 years bringing people together,” LaHood said, noting his work in co-chairing four bi-partisan Congressional retreats. “I’m proud of that. … I think I am somebody who can bring people together and that’s what I’m going to try to sell people on.”

LaHood, 59, has represented the central Illinois 18th district, which includes a portion of Springfield and is based in his home of Peoria, since 1994. During his decade of service in the House he has never been one to shy from speaking his mind, even when it contradicts GOP leaders.

Last cycle, he created headlines by voicing criticism of longtime Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.), who eventually lost a tough battle for re-election. LaHood was also one of the first Republicans in the state to call for then-Senate nominee Jack Ryan (R) to exit the race after the release of custody battle papers that contained embarrassing allegations.

But LaHood’s most public feud in recent years has been with former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), who chose not to seek a second term in 2004.

And while LaHood’s candor hasn’t always been considered refreshing on Capitol Hill, he’s hoping it will help him wins votes back home.

“I don’t beat around the bush. I don’t try to pull the wool over the eyes of the press. I’m a pretty straightforward person and it’s gotten me in trouble in the past. It’s gotten me in trouble with some party leaders,” LaHood admitted. “But I don’t apologize for it because I think in the end what I’ve said has been correct and it’s helped strengthen our party.”

LaHood is not well-known outside of his 20-county district. Between now and June or July, when he says he’ll decide on the gubernatorial race, he plans to travel the rubber chicken circuit and visit those parts of the state where he is unknown.

He estimates that he will need somewhere from $5 million to $6 million for the primary alone. A general election race against a well-funded opponent could cost upwards of $15 million to $20 million.

LaHood currently has almost $730,000 in his Congressional campaign account. Blagojevich has amassed more than $9 million.

Other Republicans interested in the gubernatorial race include state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, millionaire businessman Ron Gidwitz, former state Sen. Patrick O’Malley and dairy magnate Jim Oberweis.

LaHood’s name has been floated for statewide office before, but his pending announcement came last week as somewhat of a surprise to state Republican insiders because he had not been considered in the mix for 2006, when all of the state’s constitutional offices are up.

LaHood said the assistance of fellow Republicans in the Congressional delegation will be a key factor in his effort to gather statewide support.

“Some have said they will do whatever they can for me. Some have said they will endorse me,” he said. “I can’t ask for more than that. All of our Members are very popular and in a Republican primary to have my colleagues and [people in] their districts helping me is a huge, huge plus. It’s a big network for me.”

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said he was somewhat surprised when he heard that his colleague was considering the gubernatorial race, but he welcomed the news.

“My response was, ‘Great’ — because we really do need some new faces,” Shimkus recalled last week. “He would be a new face statewide. Someone who has a good record and someone who works hard. Ray brings those qualities. So I think a lot of us were excited that he’s looking at it.”

Shimkus also said he thinks that LaHood’s blunt-spoken manner will help him appeal to moderate Republicans and independent voters.

“I think they would really relish that,” Shimkus said.

But LaHood isn’t necessarily counting on the public support of Hastert, the most powerful Republican in the state.

“He probably wants to keep his powder dry,” LaHood admitted, citing the Speaker’s ties to other potential candidates.

A GOP source close to the Speaker said LaHood and Hastert are “friends” and that Hastert has tried to help LaHood whenever he could. Still, Hastert’s hands are likely to be tied.

“My guess is that he would not endorse anybody,” the source said.

Hastert did not issue a public endorsement in the crowded 2004 Senate primary. In 2002, he saw mixed results with his support. He backed then-state Attorney General Jim Ryan (R) in a three-way gubernatorial primary. Ryan won but went on to lose the general election to Blagojevich.

Hastert played little public role in the state party’s search for a new Senate candidate to replace 2004 nominee Jack Ryan, who was forced out of the race after embarrassing sex club allegations became public.

LaHood openly campaigned to become the next chairman of the Intelligence panel when the position came open last year. However, Hastert chose the less-senior Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) instead, and LaHood publicly expressed his disappointment after being passed over for the gavel.

LaHood, who began his Hill career as an aide to then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), did not indicate that the slight was a factor in his decision to look at the gubernatorial race.

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