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Land of Lincoln Could Be Land of Opportunity for House Democrats

Illinois Republicans have encountered some serious turbulence lately.

A year ago, one of their own, Rep. Dennis Hastert, was Speaker of the House. Now a powerless backbencher, Hastert clearly is a short-timer. But while his retirement will surprise no one, Republicans fret he could take up to four of his Illini brethren with him.

None of the state’s nine Republican House Members has said he or she would step down next year — and some insist they are running again. But that has not stopped the speculation.

Privately, Republican operatives concede that GOP leaders have given at least half of them “bed checks.”

It began when Rep. Ray LaHood (R) publicly announced that he was suspending campaign activities while he contemplates throwing his hat into the ring to lead his alma mater. Bradley University, a small, private school in Peoria, needs a new president. LaHood said he would decide what to do within a few weeks.

Rep. Jerry Weller (R) has been the subject of retirement rumors since he wed Zury Rios Sosa, daughter of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, in 2004.

History makes Rep. Don Manzullo (R) a prime candidate for retirement as former chairmen often leave Congress rather than face their duties without a gavel. Manzullo led the House Small Business Committee until Democrats took control. However, even if the GOP still ran the House, Manzullo would have lost his chairmanship to term limits.

Rep. Judy Biggert (R), who turns 70 next month, also might choose to bow out if she concludes that Democrats will still have the majority after 2008, because reapportionment, accompanied by redistricting, will come on the heels of the 2010 Census.

Democrats control the Illinois Legislature and the governorship, yet they hold only one more seat than the GOP in Congress.

Republicans in suburban and exurban Chicago areas, such as Biggert, probably will not recognize their Republican-leaning districts once Democrats are done redrawing the lines.

“Whether these Republican Members retire or not, there is a strong appetite for change in Illinois and the environment is only going to get worse for the GOP in 2008,” said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Ryan Rudominer.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley immediately dismissed the retirement rumors.

Democrats may regret it if they choose to target Weller, LaHood, Biggert or Manzullo anyway, she said.

“I think it’s a gigantic stretch for the Democrats to think that they can make inroads in Illinois,” Shutley said. “These are red seats.”

True as that may be — President Bush won all four districts, taking his smallest margin, 53 percent, in Weller’s 11th district — there are numerous factors working against the GOP this cycle.

Illinois already votes Democratic in presidential years — Bush won just 44 percent of the 2004 vote — and next year the Prairie State’s own Sen. Barack Obama could be leading the ticket as Democrats’ presidential nominee. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D) is well-liked and and should cruise to a third term in 2008. Nonetheless, he has a strong get-out-the-vote operation and will be working to elect other Democrats on the ballot.

The NRCC was worried enough about the re-election prospects of Reps. Peter Roskam and Mark Kirk that it put them in the Regain Our Majority Program, which gives extra aid to potentially vulnerable incumbents.

Democrats already have begun attacking Weller. Last week the DCCC sent out two news releases, one razing Weller for not publicizing his 2008 budget requests, or earmarks, another for his refusal to disclose his wife’s finances, despite House rules.

Republicans will make a run at Rep. Melissa Bean (D), but she is the DCCC’s only cause for concern in Illinois.

Last week the state GOP suffered two significant, and well-publicized, indignities.

State Rep. Paul Froelich bolted the Republican Party. Then two Republicans — an important county chairman and a state Senator — appeared in an Obama campaign ad.

Shutley said none of that ultimately will matter. “This isn’t going to be a 2006,” she said.

If LaHood et al. are worried, or ready to move to Florida, they are not saying so.

“I love my job,” Biggert said Friday. “I formally announced my candidacy for re-election … and I have publicly stated on many occasions that I fully intend to run at least through the next redistricting, and likely beyond.”

Manzullo spokesman Rich Carter said his boss is staying put. “He still has the fire in the belly.”

Weller spokesman Andy Fuller blamed former DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) for spreading the rumors.

“These rumors pop up every two years, often they originate from Mr. Emanuel,” Fuller said.

Even LaHood spokeswoman Joan DeBoer swore her boss was not retiring — though the Congressman himself has said the Bradley job could change everything.

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