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Illinois’ Lauzen Runs Hard to the Right

CHICAGO — For Windy City conservatives, it was like a chance to meet Santa Claus on Christmas morning: a book signing with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for his new memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son.”

State Sen. Chris Lauzen (R), who worked the queue of hundreds of Thomas fans lined up to have the tome signed by the justice, was playing the role of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Nearly 1,000 local GOP faithful filed into the dimly lit downtown hotel banquet hall for the Sunday night event sponsored late last month by the Heritage Foundation. Lauzen — the overlooked, soft-spoken conservative workhorse who is promising to deliver the goods come crunch time — is one of two GOP frontrunners vying to replace retiring former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quietly is backing scientist and first-time candidate Bill Foster, who has pledged to pour $1 million each into both the primary and general elections. Democrats are convinced that as the district becomes more suburban, their chances for victory increase.

For the National Republican Congressional Committee, the outlook in the early Feb. 5 primary is more tenuous, as Lauzen, dairy heir Jim Oberweis and at least two other candidates take off the gloves in the GOP race to replace Hastert, who remains elusive on whether he’ll even finish out his 11th term.

For now, Lauzen appears to be leading the on-hand money chase: The state Senator had nearly $530,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30, compared with Oberweis’ $179,000. But Oberweis, whose family controls a Chicagoland-area milk and ice cream empire, has a significant personal fortune, which he has unleashed in his three recent ill-fated political attempts.

In 2004, Oberweis spent more than $3 million of his own on a failed Senate attempt, a seat that eventually was captured by Barack Obama (D). Oberweis’ campaign declined repeated Roll Call attempts to discuss the 2008 primary.

But even if he finds himself in a fundraising hole, Lauzen is banking on his conservative credentials getting him through the primary.

“Lauzen has set himself totally apart,” said Bob Russell, a Heritage fundraising consultant who attended the justice’s book-signing event at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. “People who do that have a better chance of getting recognized and getting elected than people who get mushy.”

Flashing his conservative credentials is just what Lauzen has done in recent months. At the end of the summer, he protested the controversial opening of a Planned Parenthood clinic in the 14th Congressional district.

Media reports indicate that Oberweis historically has had an inconsistent stance on female reproductive rights.

“I was the lead sponsor [in the state Senate] on the ban to partial birth abortion,” Lauzen said at the book-signing event. “I’ve had my house egged, my tires slashed.”

“I demonstrated to show my support,” Lauzen said of his participation at the Planned Parenthood site. “It demonstrates that I’ve been consistently pro-life, unlike my opponent.”

Lauzen’s conservative stances, particularly on abortion, are what impressed Harry and Jennifer Niska, a young married couple who live in the 14th district, a normally GOP-tilting area that Democrats claim suburban sprawl is turning purple.

“We’re both strongly pro-life and we appreciate that he not only takes a pro-life position on the issues, but … that he is actively involved. He cared enough about it to show up at the rallies and not a lot of politicians stuck their necks out,” Harry Niska said. “He’s running as a pretty traditional conservative and he committed to cleaning up the Republican Party in the state, which has its issues.”

“I do appreciate that he talks about traditional values, especially about being pro-life and traditional marriage because I think those things have really gone to the wayside — particularly amongst conservatives,” Jennifer Niska said. “The Planned Parenthood situation is so important because we live so close to it and we just had a son a few weeks ago.”

Keith Wheeler, a former Oberweis supporter who also was on hand at the Thomas event, said Lauzen’s conservative positions should play particularly well in the rural western portions of the district, where he can flex his conservative 15-year voting record.

Wheeler, chairman of the Kendall County Republican Candidate Support Committee, now volunteers for Lauzen’s campaign.

“Chris has got two things going for him: He’s got a great track record and people know he’s going to vote exactly like he says he is,” Wheeler said.

Russell said local GOP voters have grown tired with Oberweis’ repeated attempts to win public office, particularly because he spends so much money and gains so few votes.

In 2004, Oberweis received less than 25 percent of the GOP primary vote. Jack Ryan (R), who ultimately dropped out of the race after divorce records detailing his alleged affinity for adult sex clubs surfaced, won the 2004 Republican primary with 36 percent of the vote.

“Oberweis running again is a little unexplainable because he’s not won much — like nothing,” Russell said. “His following dwindles each time he goes back out because people don’t think he’s a winner.”

But one of the big unanswered questions is what Hastert will do in the primary.

Russell and others active in 14th district Republican politics expect that the former Speaker will soon make the primary into a three-candidate race: Lauzen, Oberweis and a candidate to be determined later. Lauzen is well-known in the state, Russell said, for frequently butting heads with Hastert and his state political allies — making an endorsement by the former Speaker unlikely.

Ryan Green, who works at Russell’s Geneva, Ill.,-based market research firm and also attended the Thomas event, said Oberweis, too, will be passed over for a Hastert endorsement.

Green predicted that Hastert likely will pick a lesser-known candidate, but declined to offer a guess.

Monday’s candidate filing deadline was after Roll Call went to press, but as of press time only Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns and advertising executive Rudy Clai, along with Lauzen and Oberweis, had paperwork on file with the Federal Election Commission. Both Burns and Clai had less than $100,000 in the bank at the beginning of October.

“The Illinois Republican machine … does not like Chris Lauzen,” Russell said. “The [unknown] candidate … would have the [Hastert] machine influence.”

Russell and Green speculated that the entry of a Hastert-picked candidate will set up an eventual Lauzen victory by siphoning off Oberweis supporters and encouraging typically conservative primary voters to organize around Lauzen.

But Lauzen said he sees his formula for victory in the primary as simple, and he said the contest involves two issues: “performance versus promises and … I win campaigns.”

Still, Lauzen acknowledges that his biggest asset going into the primary — his far-right base of conservative diehards — could prove problematic in a general election with Foster, when heavy swing-voter turnout is expected in 2008 presidential election.

“Primaries are easy because people generally agree with you,” Lauzen said. “General elections: you need all the people you can get.”

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