In this season of special House elections, Democrats in central Illinois’ 18th district are hoping that Rep. Ray LaHood (R) will soon resign to become president of Bradley University — setting up another special and possibly putting a currently safe Republican seat in play.
LaHood announced last week that he will stop fundraising until he decides whether to seek the presidency of his alma mater, telling the Chicago Tribune, “It’s a little unseemly to be asking people for money if I’m thinking about taking another position.”
If he gets the job and resigns, it would create the fourth special House election of the 2008 cycle — two House Members have died while another is soon to become a college president himself.
Although the 18th district was President Bush’s third-best performing district in Illinois in 2004, giving him 58 percent of the vote, Democrats think the seat could be in play if LaHood moves on.
“By announcing his intention to focus on his job search, LaHood has made clear his heart is in other places,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer said in a statement. “Whether he gets the job or not, the people of Illinois’s 18th district deserve a Representative 100 percent committed to them.”
Republicans believe Democrats are being overly optimistic about their prospects. But that hasn’t stopped Democrats from dreaming.
Although LaHood would be the first president without a doctorate in Bradley’s 110-year history, the university’s posted job description “sure sounds like it was written for him,” said Shirley McCombs, a former Illinois state Representative who is the district’s Democratic committeewoman.
“I understand that he’s canceled three fundraisers,” McCombs said. “We’re getting good vibes that he’s going to get the job.”
Bradley’s Web site says candidates should have applied for the position by April 30 for “optimal consideration.” The university’s press office referred a call about a timeline for the decision to the chairman of Bradley’s board of trustees, who did not return a phone message.
LaHood spokeswoman Joan De Boer said her boss will make a decision on whether to apply for the position by mid-July.
Among the Democrats who might run in a special election is state Sen. John Sullivan, who is watching the situation closely, “weighing his options” and would be a strong contender, McCombs said.
But Sullivan’s candidacy could be complicated by the fact that his Senate district covers only the far western edge of the 18th, which is centered around Peoria and its metro population of 346,000.
Sullivan represents parts of only seven of the district’s 20 counties and none of the three most populated — Peoria, Tazewell and Sangamon — which combined cast more than 60 percent of the district’s total vote in 2006.
“Sullivan is a very likeable person and would be a good candidate, but the only reason I hesitate to say that is because he’s not from the Peoria area,” a second Democratic source in the district said. “I would think a successful candidate would have to have a base out of Peoria and the tri-county area” of Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford.
Sullivan also might be labeled a carpetbagger because he was briefly a candidate last year for the open seat in the neighboring 17th district, even though he lives in LaHood’s district.
When Democratic committeemen in the 17th district met to choose a ballot replacement for then-Rep. Lane Evans (D), who announced after the March Democratic primary that he was retiring at the end of the term, they preferred now-Rep. Phil Hare (D), a longtime Evans aide, over Sullivan. But McCombs said Sullivan would be a formidable candidate and is more well-known in the 18th than people might think.
“He is electable. He’s highly respected,” she said. “He’s gone to other counties to speak, and all of the 20 counties in the 18th district are well aware of John Sullivan and his reputation.”
Sullivan did not respond to a phone message by press time.
Congressional map makers in Illinois did not do Democrats in the district any favors after the most recent census when they opted against drawing more competitive lines. Instead, the incumbent protection plan added Democratic precincts in the state capital of Springfield and nearby Decatur to shore up Evans’ seat, while adding GOP voters to LaHood’s district.
The result: Bush’s showing in the 18th went from 54 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2004.
Still, Sullivan is not the Democrats’ only prospect for the LaHood seat. The second Democratic source in the district said another potentially strong candidate would be Patricia Benassi, a Peoria trial lawyer who the source said considered running in 2006.
Instead, Democrats put up only a nominal candidate in Steve Waterworth, who earned 33 percent while not spending enough money to have to file with the Federal Election Commission.
Waterworth also ran in 2004, registering 30 percent of the vote and spending $4,500.
Those numbers have to encourage Republicans.
“Rep. LaHood won this seat [with] 67 percent last year in a bad environment for Republicans,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley said in a statement. “We are confident as long as his name is on the ballot he will be re-elected. In an open seat scenario, this is still a very winnable seat and it will stay in the red column.”
One potential Republican candidate for an open seat is state Rep. Aaron Schock, a 26 year old who represents Peoria and is the youngest member of the state Legislature.
But Democrats believe that while LaHood is popular — even House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) sang his praises to the Tribune last week — the district might be ready for a change if the incumbent moves on.
“Ray has done a lot of things people in the community wanted him to do,” the Democratic source said, “but now … maybe people would elect a Democrat.”