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Carbondale Mayor Beat Late Senator’s Daughter

First of two parts

For the first time in nearly a decade, the coast is clear for Republicans in Illinois. It’s finally safe to come out of hiding.

[IMGCAP(1)]“2008 is a year when we have an opportunity to bring forward a new generation of Republican candidates … fresh faces on the ballot,” Andy McKenna, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, told Roll Call on Friday.

After years of enduring the prolonged “license-for-bribe” scandal involving now-jailed former Gov. George Ryan, Land of Lincoln Republicans are betting that the humiliation may finally be over. The state GOP arguably bottomed out half a decade ago when a Democratic ticket headed by well-connected Rep. Rod Blagojevich roared into power.

Republicans hope that wave has already crested.

Blagojevich, the son-in-law of powerful Chicago Alderman Richard Mell (D), is now facing controversy of his own. And helped by the furor, Republicans are debuting a new crop of young conservative candidates and officeholders. Although “our bench isn’t as deep as we’d like it to be,” as one Illinois Republican operative put it, a handful of promising Republican up-and-comers are making their way through city councils and county board rooms throughout the state.

And for at least two, Aaron Schock and Tim Baldermann, their big breaks may come sooner than expected.

Schock, a 26-year-old state legislator, is the favorite to win a three-way Republican primary to replace retiring Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) — and he may draw a pass from Democrats on Election Day. Dick Versace, the heavily recruited Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee candidate and former basketball coach for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and district-based Bradley University, bowed out unexpectedly late last year and his replacement has yet to emerge.

Schock is frequently cited as the standard-bearer for the new class of young Republicans in the state. Starting with Gov. Jim Thompson’s (R) epic four-term run in 1976, and ending with Blagojevich’s victory, Illinois’ Republican Party operated from the governor’s Springfield desk, Republican operatives say, stunting development at the grass-roots level.

For decades, Republican sources say, grooming candidates outside of the governor’s inner circle was rare. And setting up a development program, they warn, takes time.

“The party became an extension of the governor’s office,” a GOP operative said. “It takes a while to rebuild an organization that is independent of individual officeholders.”

Like Schock, Baldermann, the mayor of south Chicago suburb New Lenox, is running for a House seat this year. Rep. Jerry Weller (R) is retiring after seven terms, and Baldermann is locked in a GOP primary battle for the chance at taking on state Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, a top DCCC recruit and lone Democrat in the Feb. 5 primary.

Further down the depth chart, Illinois Republican operatives point to Carbondale Mayor Brad Cole and state Sen. Matt Murphy as promising GOP talent. State Rep. Chapin Rose, whose assembly district overlaps with four-term Rep. Timothy Johnson’s (R) district, and state Rep. Tim Schmitz (R), who represents parts of ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R) former district, also are frequently mentioned as Congressional candidates of the future.

Sprawling suburban Chicago, home to Murphy and Schmitz, is proving to be an incubator for top GOP talent, Republican operatives claim. State Senate Deputy Minority Leader Christine Radogno, based in LeMont, was once short-listed as a possible Weller successor. Kane County Chairwoman Karen McConnaughay, too, is rumored to hold Congressional ambitions, along with Brien Sheahan, a DuPage County board member.

Also named: state Rep. Jim Durkin (R), a former Senate nominee who runs Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign in Illinois, and state Sen. Dan Rutherford, a onetime secretary of state candidate who runs former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) Illinois operations.

“Downstate” — the colloquial description of the state’s conservative southern third — GOP operatives say Carbondale Mayor Cole may one day be headed to Washington, D.C. Carbondale, a liberal college town, re-elected Cole last year in a tight race against Sheila Simon (D), a city councilwoman and daughter of deceased favorite son Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.).

“The fight of a lifetime,” a state political operative described the Simon-Cole matchup. “He busted his [expletive] and ran on his record … [and] really turned some heads in the political world.”

Still, despite the recent promise shown by some Republican underclassmen, GOP operatives warn that the likes of Cole, Schock and Baldermann are the exception, not the norm.

“It’s not really been the tradition, so when you see somebody like Aaron Schock, it’s unusual … we just don’t have a lot of Aaron Schocks,” a source said. “You’re starting to see it, though.”

Next week: Democratic rising stars in the Land of Lincoln.

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