Hastert, LaHood Still Seeking Fitzgerald Foe

Posted March 21, 2003 at 6:48pm

Senate Republicans have been trying to bolster the re-election campaign of Illinois GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, but with powerful homestate colleagues like Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) and Rep. Ray LaHood (R) gunning for his ouster, Fitzgerald’s 2004 prospects are still in some doubt.

Hoping to give their most endangered incumbent a higher profile and accomplishments to run on, Senate Republicans recently voted to allow Fitzgerald to chair three subcommittees, even though GOP rules limit most junior members to two such posts. The GOP Conference has also allowed Fitzgerald to get out front on issues such as extending unemployment benefits.

Despite the fact that the White House has signaled that President Bush does not want a primary challenge to Fitzgerald, Hastert and LaHood have not given up on their quest to find a viable challenger to the Senator.

“There are still people stirring around out there checking the pulse,” LaHood said of his public effort to recruit a primary challenger.

However, it may just be a matter of time before both Senate Republicans and the White House urge Hastert and LaHood to back off.

“That should be done, and I presume it is being done,” said one GOP Senator. “Sibling rivalry is probably a little bit at play here, but they’ll have to rise above it. … Because it’s stupid to do otherwise.”

Though both are Republicans, Fitzgerald and Hastert have had a number of public clashes over home-state politics, particularly concerning issues involving former GOP Gov. George Ryan, a Hastert friend and political ally.

Fitzgerald considered challenging Ryan in a primary in 2002 because of allegations (and a subsequent indictment of the governor’s aides) that Ryan improperly used the Illinois Secretary of State’s office to run his gubernatorial campaign. Because of the scandal, Ryan did not run for reelection in 2002.

LaHood said the real issue was that Fitzgerald is not a team player.

“A Senator works for the party by helping people in the party get elected, by going to fundraisers. You look to your senator to help you on legislative issues,” said LaHood. “But [Fitzgerald’s] been missing in action for four years. If Peter fashions himself an Independent, he should run as an Independent. If he’s a Republican, then he needs to work within the party.”

The hope of LaHood and Hastert is that they can recreate the success of freshman Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), who took on incumbent Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) in the GOP primary last year and went on to defeat the Democratic challenger in the general election. (Smith was challenged because he briefly left the GOP to become an independent, but returned to the fold four months later.)

LaHood said that model should guide Senate leaders and that they should abandon their effort to prop up Fitzgerald.

“The Senate leadership and the White House leadership apparently didn’t feel that way about Bob Smith, because they knew he couldn’t win the general election,” said LaHood. “If they read the tea leaves on this, they’ll see [Fitzgerald] can’t win either.”

Senate Republicans acknowledge that Fitzgerald’s reelection efforts are in trouble. But they say it has become increasingly clear that, in a primary at least, Fitzgerald would be the victor. So far, only two-little known potential challengers have emerged: Schwartz Paper Company president Andrew McKenna and wealthy businessman Patrick Kelly.

“My understanding from talking to people there is that they realize he would win the nomination, so they didn’t want to waste their time and effort,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.). “It’s different from Bob Smith. Bob Smith had left the party. … It’s not the case with Fitzgerald.”

Senate GOP leadership aides noted that Fitzgerald’s personal wealth also makes him a formidable adversary in a primary campaign. In his first campaign in 1998, Fitzgerald spent $14.6 million, most of it from his own fortune, to defeat Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.

Allen would not comment on what, if any, conversations other Republicans have had with Hastert, but he implied that the Speaker would come around.

“Without getting into any personal conversations with any Republicans in any state, we clearly have to get Republicans pulling together, particularly in states where Republicans have a more difficult time,” said Allen. “We need all the wings and personalities marching together in the same direction, and Illinois is clearly one of those instances.”

The White House also “is 100 percent behind Fitzgerald,” a Bush administration official said.

“We don’t have a margin of error in the Senate,” said the official of the narrow 51-49 majority Republicans now hold. “We’ll have to figure out how to play the team role.”

But a source close to Fitzgerald said the animosity between the Senator and Hastert runs so deep that Hastert does not appear to care about whether control of the Senate is at stake.

“He’s a bigger deal if Republicans aren’t in control of the Senate. … In fact, they’ll probably be working with Democrats to defeat [Fitzgerald],” said the source. “He’d rather have no Republican Senator from Illinois, so that he can be the big cheese.”

Hastert’s office declined comment, but LaHood said that assertion was ridiculous.

“I don’t think Denny Hastert would ever work to defeat a Republican,” said LaHood. “He is the cheese. He’s the go-to guy in our party. He’s the go-to guy for the White House. He’s the go-to guy for [Chicago Democratic Mayor Richard] Daley. He’s the go-to guy for [Democratic Gov.] Rod Blagojevich.”

LaHood also said he was going forward with the primary recruitment because no one had told him to stop.

“No one’s ever asked me to back off,” he said. The Congressman noted it would depend on who talked to him and what their argument was before he would pull back.

The source close to Fitzgerald said the freshman lawmaker was unlikely to take the offensive from Hastert and LaHood laying down and claimed that the Senator has had success in outmaneuvering Hastert before.

When Ryan’s office was under federal investigation for misdeeds, Fitzgerald was in a position to recommend the new U.S. attorney who would take over the probe. The Fitzgerald source alleged that Hastert tried to get the White House to reject the Senator’s pick of a New Yorker for the post, because an Illinois crony might take a softer approach to the Ryan investigation.

At the time, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial page lambasted Hastert for trying to interfere with Fitzgerald’s U.S. attorney pick.

“Hastert isn’t just inviting the charge that he’s a toady of Ryan and the rest of the blueblood branch of the Illinois GOP. He risks the more serious accusation that he’s sending a message to possible targets of the federal probe: Just hold on a little longer. We’ll find a prosecutor who lets you off the hook,” the Tribune wrote on Jan. 19, 2001.

In the end, the Senate confirmed Fitzgerald’s pick, Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation). And just last week, the U.S. attorney won a conviction against a Ryan political aide for racketeering and corruption.

Fitzgerald, who wears his rejection of the Illinois GOP establishment like a badge of honor, said he was not intimidated by Hastert and LaHood’s efforts, and that he welcomed the support of his Senate colleagues.

Fitzgerald notes that thanks to his Senate colleagues, he now chairs the Commerce subcommittee on consumer affairs and product safety, along with the Governmental Affairs subcommittee on financial management, the budget and international security as well as the Agriculture subcommittee on research, nutrition and general legislation.

“Certainly, anybody I’ve asked to help with anything has been very accommodating,” said Fitzgerald. “The Conference did vote to give me a third subcommittee. They’ve all been very helpful.”

Still, Allen acknowledged that, with or without other Republicans trying to bring him down, Fitzgerald would have a tough run.

“The Land of Lincoln is a tough state for Republicans,” he said.

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.