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Hastert Starts New Fundraising Push

Capitol Hill observers and Illinois aspirants waiting for a retirement announcement from former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) should be patient, as Hastert has shown no signs that he is ready to bow out and is instead continuing to raise money for his re-election campaign.

On Jan. 22, Hastert sent out a glossy mass-mailer, described as “glitzy” by one recipient, asking for a $2,100 contribution for the primary cycle to Hastert for Congress — his re-election campaign committee — that in turn offers donors entrance into the “Congressional Trust,” which provides “a trip to Washington DC, an exclusive evening in Chicago, two political breakfast briefings, two complimentary all-access passes to events both in Illinois and Washington DC, and other special amenities,” according to the fundraising letter.

Hastert also asks donors to contribute $500 to the “Congressional Club,” which Hastert describes as “the backbone of my campaign, [that] is a special group of people who provide the financial foundation on an annual basis to ensure the strength of my campaign in the 14th District.”

Formerly known as the Speaker’s Trust, the Congressional Trust “serves as the candidate support program of the Hastert for Congress committee,” according to the letter.

Some recipients inside the Beltway were caught off-guard by the pitch because the wide-held expectation on Capitol Hill and K Street is that Hastert is on his way out of Congress. “I was just kind of astonished,” said one GOP lobbyist who received the fundraising packet.

No one interviewed for this article expressed confidence that Hastert would run for a 12th term, and that expectation — along with his deflated status — could translate into significantly less cash for Hastert, who once was the best fundraiser in the House.

It “seems odd to try to raise $2,100 per cycle from folks when there is no certainty that he intends to run for re-election,” said one GOP lobbyist who received the letter. The lobbyist said that he did not expect to donate money at this time. “I’m reserving the right to figure out what happens with the seat.”

The most recent Federal Election Commission filing had Hastert reporting only $17,000 in the bank for his re-election campaign as of Nov. 27. The next quarterly filing report will be available Wednesday.

Hastert’s leadership PAC, the Keep Our Majority PAC, also will be filing tomorrow and is expected to report $600,000 to $700,000 on hand. Hastert’s leadership PAC has had little activity since the November elections, and he also is expected to change its title.

If Hastert does not intend to run for re-election, the question remains why he would make such a concerted effort to fill his coffers.

Hastert has long been a key player in Illinois state politics, and knowledgeable sources said he remains heavily involved on the state level, meeting regularly with officials back home as they assess a weakened GOP operation in the state. “I think it’s just a very basic issue that if you want to be [politically] active you need to have the funds,” said one source.

Unburdened by the political travel schedule he maintained as Speaker, Hastert has spent considerable time in his district since November. Hastert is a friend and ally of Tom Cross, the Republican Minority Leader in the state House, among many other state and local officials.

Hastert has been part of the GOP political discussions regarding Illinois Speaker Michael Madigan’s (D) effort to move up the Illinois presidential primary date from March to February to benefit the home-state Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Hastert already has endorsed GOP presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R).

While Illinois is an increasingly Democratic state, Hastert has been working to bolster the state GOP’s political operation, in part because once he decides to leave the House, he is expected to retire in his home state.

Campaign finance laws allow Hastert to give unlimited soft-money donations on the state and local level in Illinois from his campaign committee, as well as to the National Republican Congressional Committee, but laws governing leadership PACs are more restrictive, helping to explain why he now is focused on raising money for Hastert for Congress.

Hastert also is mindful that an early retirement and special election could spark a competitive race in his suburban Chicago-area district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee likely would field a candidate, and Hastert does not want to see his seat change hands.

Sources both in Illinois and Washington have said that Hastert’s favored candidate is state GOP Rep. Tim Schmitz (R), although his victory is not a sure shot. An open GOP primary likely would be crowded and expensive as a number of state officials, including state Sen. Chris Lauzen (R), are expected to throw their hat in the race.

If Hastert files for re-election in December, and wins the GOP primary regardless of the date, he still could retire. Under Illinois law, the seat would be declared vacant and a candidate would be chosen by a District Convention made up of local party officials friendly to Hastert’s political operation.

It is a common move in Illinois politics, used by former Reps. William Lipinski (D) and Lane Evans (D) when they announced retirements after they had won the primary election.

And there always is the slim chance that Hastert decides to stick it out for a while until his seat is sure to land in GOP hands. “Until he says for sure what he’s going to do, I wouldn’t make any bets,” said another source.

In the meantime, Hastert is said to enjoy his new lower-profile role in the House. As a courtesy, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave him coveted office space on the first floor of the Capitol, he still has a security detail, and is a subcommittee ranking member on the exclusive Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Denny Hastert remains an active and energetic member of Congress, and he is keeping his options open for the future,” said spokesman John McGovern. “Thus, it certainly makes sense for him to ensure that his campaign is well-funded and politically engaged.”

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