Skip to content

Land of Opportunity?

GOP: Democratic Recruiting Has Fallen Short in Targeted Ill. Districts

With less than two months until Illinois’ filing deadline, House Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief over what they claim are a series of Democratic recruiting failures that give the GOP a bye in the Land of Lincoln next year.

“One by one, top Democrat recruits in Illinois are backing away from running despite the desperate pleas of the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee],” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The Democrat strategy in Illinois has been reduced to the audacity of hype.”

Although House Democrats have several targets in Illinois next year, Republicans point to two open GOP seats and three potentially vulnerable Republican districts where Democrats have fallen short on the recruiting front. And with a dozen or more potentially vulnerable Democratic first- termers sitting in enemy territory nationally this cycle, some Republican strategists believe DCCC financing in 2008 will be a zero-sum proposition in Illinois.

“The Democrats won a bunch of seats they had no business winning last time,” one state GOP operative said. “Their first priority has to be protecting those shaky incumbents.”

Democrats privately acknowledge that Illinois will unlikely be a cakewalk. Still, they argue that solid candidates and various factors up and down the ballot will play to their advantage. Also, once the pre-primary dust settles, one Democratic source from the state said an anticipated bumper crop of GOP state legislature retirements will crowd polling places with Democratic voters.

“Democrats on a local level have a lot opportunity and that’s going to influence a lot of what happens” in federal elections, the Democratic source said. “The environment is about as friendly as it could be for Democrats.”

Democrats also argue that if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is the party’s White House nominee next year, that will further aid their candidates in his home state.

National Democrats also appear to be trying to further capitalize on 2006 successes, growing discontent for the Iraq War and other byproducts of eight years of a Republican White House — including two once-mighty veteran GOP House Members from Illinois who are calling it quits.

“The political environment in Illinois continues to cause major headaches for national Republicans and it’s only getting worse with Republicans recently being blindsided by retirements, nasty infighting and scandal,” said Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the DCCC.

Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), now a backbencher after 11 terms, and Peoria-based Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill), who came to Congress in 1995, have both recently announced their retirements, setting up potentially hard-fought primary and general elections in generally GOP-leaning districts. Still, particularly in Hastert’s Chicago-area district, even Republicans acknowledge the seat is less safe than in previous cycles.

“The district has changed with redistricting … less exurban and more suburban,” said one GOP source. “But it’s still your old-fashioned small-city conservative seat: Huge agriculture issues, huge transportation issues.”

“I’m not saying you need to be Hastert, but that model,” the source said.

On the Republican side, Jim Oberweis, a wealthy dairy scion, state Sen. Chris Lauzen and Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns all are making a run to replace Hastert. While it’s still early, a local Republican says Oberweis’ cash and name identification — from his three failed statewide runs and his family’s eponymous retail chain — give him a clear edge.

In their corner, Democrats are fielding wealthy Fermilab physicist Bill Foster, a political neophyte who has pledged to spend $2 million of his own money. Popular state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D) was considering a run but abruptly bowed out.

Without Chapa LaVia — and short of a GOP public relations meltdown — one state Democratic source said there is little chance Democrats can take the seat. After all, 14th district voters did give President Bush 55 percent of their vote in 2004 and 54 percent in 2000.

“It’s a pretty Republican district and I don’t necessarily buy that it’s in play,” the source said. “It’s a little more solidly [Republican] than [Rep. Peter] Roskam’s [R-Ill.] seat and Tammy Duckworth did as well as a Democrat could do in that seat the last cycle.”

Republicans, too, point to Roskam’s district as proof that unforced errors will help them next year. In the previous cycle, then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) hand-picked Duckworth, a triple-amputee Iraq War veteran, to run against Roskam for retiring Rep. Henry Hyde’s (R) seat, in a district adjoining Emanuel’s.

Roskam won by almost 5,000 votes last year. To date, he is running unopposed.

Democrats also may be hamstringing themselves in Rep. Mark Kirk’s (R) North Shore district. In that marginal GOP-leaning district, Democrat Dan Seals — who took 47 percent against Kirk in the previous cycle with minimal DCCC help — is running again, as is Clinton White House aide Jay Footlik.

Both Seals and Footlik are nearly $1 million behind Kirk in fundraising, a gap most expect will be bridged now that Seals is in the DCCC’s good graces.

“They’ve committed to [Seals] and will make it a tier 1” race, said one Democratic operative. “Kirk has been working very hard, but a lot of it depends on the top of the ticket. It’s really a tough seat for Republicans in this environment.”

By allowing both Seals and Footlik to run, local sources said Democrats could hurt their potentially rosy prospects by allowing the two to whale on each other — causing further voter fatigue — and spend through millions in the process.

“The DCCC is not very engaged in that race. If they were, they would clear that field,” the source said. “[Democrats] will start from ground zero after the primary, and Kirk will be sitting on $1.5 million.”

With two potentially competitive Chicagoland races, Republicans are wagering that Democrats now find Foster attractive because of his personal fortune.

“If you’re going to go after the Hastert open seat and they’re going to go after Kirk, that’s the Chicago media market, which is the third most expensive market in the country,” one Republican operative said. “It’s a huge investment … [but] if they can get a self-funder, then they don’t have to worry about it.”

The race to replace LaHood, who announced his retirement last spring, also has piqued the interest of a few candidates from both sides. Republican state Rep. Aaron Schock far is the early odds-on favorite, and some local Democrats admit they have only sparse chances in a district Bush carried in 2004 with 58 percent of the vote.

Democratic State Sen. John Sullivan, once considered Democrats’ best prospect, has decided not to run.

“That would take incredible recruiting for a Democratic candidate,” one Democrat said. “They really would have to be the right profile of a candidate, a very conservative Democrat who’s got well-known credentials.”

Democrats also are hoping a recent tough investigative piece in the Chicago Tribune about Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) makes him vulnerable, but they have no strong challenger.