Republicans exuded confidence Friday that they would hold the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) after 14 years, pointing to a strong bench and the district’s long history in GOP hands.
But Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials see LaHood’s decision as a sign that their plan to put Republicans on defense in Illinois next year is more than just talk.
The National Republican Congressional Committee already has to keep an eye on Reps. Peter Roskam and Mark Kirk, whose suburban Chicago districts are competitive enough to convince Republican leaders to put them in the Regain Our Majority Program, which gives extra aid to potentially vulnerable incumbents.
Earlier this month, when LaHood decided not to seek the top job at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., Republican leaders thought they dodged a bullet.
Now, Democratic officials say that if the NRCC has to protect LaHood’s seat — and the seat that former Speaker Dennis Hastert is widely expected to vacate soon — it might not have the resources available to target Rep. Melissa Bean, the only Democratic member of the Illinois delegation who could have a tough race.
State Sen. John Sullivan (D), the Majority Caucus Whip, confirmed Friday that he began conversations with the DCCC when LaHood first said he might be interested in the Bradley job.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” Sullivan said. “When you have an open seat, especially a Congressional seat, those opportunities don’t come along very often.
“Whoever decides to run for the nomination has a tremendous amount of work to do, so I’m anticipating making a decision pretty quickly here,” Sullivan added. Sullivan said he was unaware of any other Democrats in the Legislature who were eyeing the seat.
Kevin Lyons, the state’s attorney for Peoria County, is the only other Democrat mentioned as a possible candidate so far.
Candidates may begin collecting petition signatures Aug. 7, the earliest date ever for Illinois.
Republicans believe the central Illinois district will remain in GOP hands even without LaHood.
The 18th “is a Republican stronghold and will remain in the red column,” NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) said in a statement.
“Already, multiple quality GOP candidates have expressed interest in running for this seat,” he continued. “The voters of central and western Illinois have elected a Republican representative for almost 75 years; 2008 won’t be any different.”
Political novice Edward Mokrzycki already was challenging LaHood for the Republican nomination, but he certainly will get sidelined by bigger names.
The list of potential Republican candidates includes state Sens. Bill Brady and Larry Bomke and state Reps. Aaron Schock, Jim Watson, David Leitch and Bill Mitchell.
“I’m going to take a look at the race and make a decision sooner rather than later,” said Leitch, who has served 20 years in the Legislature. As for Republicans working to avoid a primary, Leitch said, “I think it’s too early — [the news] just came out of the blue.”
Brady took his name off the table Friday afternoon.
“I think I’m best suited for running for re-election to my state district and keeping an eye on the  governor’s race,” said Brady, who also had been mentioned as a possible U.S. Senate candidate.
Schock, 26, who just won his second term last year, is considered a rising star in a state party desperate for some luminescence. Watson is an Iraq War veteran.
The other potential candidates did not return calls for comment before press time Friday.
President Bush won the 18th district with 58 percent of the vote in 2004, but Democrats say a number of factors are at work in their favor this cycle.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is popular throughout the state and expected to use his strong get-out-the-vote operation to help downballot Democrats as well as his own re-election campaign in 2008. The Prairie State’s junior Senator, Barack Obama, could be the Democrats’ 2008 presidential nominee. And the Illinois Republican Party is in disarray.
The district has had a moderate tilt for many years. Before LaHood won the open seat in 1994, it was held for 30 years by former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, who, like LaHood, was liked by Democrats as well as Republicans.
On behalf of the Illinois Republican Party, Andy McKenna said the GOP will hold the 18th district.
“We anticipate an open and spirited debate by those seeking to become the next Congressman,” he conceded.
“Thanks to the hard work of Congressman LaHood … the party is confident the 18th district will remain Republican for many years to come,” McKenna stated.
“I’m sure if we were in the same position, we’d be saying the same things,” said Sullivan, the Democratic state Senator. “If you look at the numbers, my district leans Republican and many people said that it couldn’t be won by a Democrat, and we did it,” he added.