Rep. Jerry Weller’s (R-Ill.) abrupt retirement two weeks ago already has created a groundswell of interest from more than a dozen would-be candidates on both sides of the aisle.
But after waiting more than decade for the seat to go vacant, local Democrats do not expect the primary pool is to be crowded for long.
“There’s a lot of people who think they would be strong candidates, but understand Debbie [Halverson’s] electability,” said James Broniarczyk, a vice chairman with the Will County Democratic Party. “The chance to take [the district] back outweighs personal ambitions.”
Halverson, the Majority Leader of the Illinois state Senate, was in Washington, D.C., on Monday meeting with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on a potential bid to replace Weller, who announced on Sept. 21 that he would not seek an eighth term in 2008.
Halverson also has met with EMILY’s List, which is considering backing her still-unconfirmed bid to replace Weller. The group first endorsed Halverson a decade ago through its state-level training program.
“We’re very excited about this seat and it fits quite nicely into the overall strategy we’re taking this cycle with the open seat possibilities that have presented themselves,” said EMILY’s List spokeswoman Ramona Oliver.
Although she would not have to give up her state Senate seat to run for Congress in 2008, Halverson may be weighing whether to remain in Springfield, where she is expected to be in line for the powerful post of state Senate president in a few years.
Weller has held the seat since 1994, when he broke out of another crowded primary with 32 percent of the vote. He went on to beat Democrat Frank Giglio in the general election with 61 percent of the vote, replacing George Sangmeister (D), who retired in 1994 after three terms.
For now the DCCC is staying quiet on the race. Still, Broniarczyk said party insiders agree Halverson’s perceived popularity throughout the district — coupled with her potential to raise money — make her the Democrats’ best chance to retake the seat, particularly in the southern portions of the district, which dips into the Bloomington- Normal area in the central portion of the state.
But in particular, Broniarczyk said, Halverson’s already strong name ID is the primary distinction between her and Larry Walsh, the Democratic Will County executive who also is on the DCCC’s short list of candidates.
“Those certainly are the two best names we could put in the field right now,” Broniarczyk said. “If you talk to a Democrat down in Bloomington, a Democrat in Bloomington probably will know who Debbie Halverson is, whereas that same Democrat may not know who Larry Walsh is.”
Other Democrats said to be considering runs are Kankakee Community College President Jerry Weber and Joliet-area state Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi.
Considering the prize and with the filing deadline less than one month away, Illinois Democrats agree a decision by Halverson to run likely would convince Walsh and John Pavich, who was the district’s Democratic nominee last year, to bow out.
“I do not see Debbie and Larry being in the same primary,” Broniarczyk said. “Other candidates that aren’t as well known or are as interconnected with the party organization, they may still run, but I could not see Larry and Debbie slugging out a primary when they both want to win that seat.”
Weller’s 2004 challenger, university professor Tari Renner (D), also has hinted he will not take on Halverson, Broniarczyk said.
Unlike Democrats, Republicans in the district say they expect the field only to clear during the primary process, which could draw as many as a dozen or more candidates. Despite Democrats’ optimism, Republicans believe they have a solid chance of holding the seat in a district that gave President Bush 53 percent of the vote in the 2004 White House election.
So far, 11 GOP candidates are rumored to be considering a run: First Midwest Bank President Jim Roolf, New Lenox Village Mayor Tim Baldermann, Frankfort mayor Jim Holland, six-term state Rep. Renée Kosel, former Frankfort Mayor Ray Rossi, state Sen. Christine Radogno, state Sen. Gary Dahl, lawyer Dick Cavanagh, former Weller staffer Cory Singer, Joliet mayor Art Schultz and appeals court judge Bill Holdridge.
Will County Republican Party Chairman Jack Partelow said he doubts a frontrunner will emerge before the Feb. 5 primary, saying that “it’s going to take a little while for this to shake out.” But early handicapping, he said, is betting that Roolf, Baldermann and Radogno “could carry significant votes,” should one or all decide to run.
Since Weller announced he was retiring two weeks ago, the DCCC has been heavily promoting the district as a possible pickup opportunity, which local Democrats suggest may require more work and outside resources than expected. Since 1994, the district has not given more than 53 percent to a Republican presidential candidate, but has voted for Republicans — in some cases decidedly — in some downballot races.
For example, in 2004, voters in Will County — roughly half of which is in the district — gave then-state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka (R) 56 percent of the vote. Still, Broniarczyk said a candidate like Halverson or Walsh — and a little more GOP bad luck for good measure — could make up the difference with swing voters.
“The district certainly was drawn to favor a Republican and probably does favor a Republican overall, but the backlash over the current administration — and against Jerry Weller in particular — it gives us a few extra percentage points that may tip the scales,” he said. “Provided that we have a good candidate.”