Race to Replace Hastert Begins in Earnest

Posted August 17, 2007 at 11:40am

Former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) long-anticipated announcement Friday that he will not seek another term in 2008 formally launched a race to succeed him that has been brewing for months, if not years, in his suburban Chicago district.

Hastert’s retirement sets off a relatively short sprint to the February primaries, when both parties will choose their nominees. While the 14th district has been reliably Republican territory in the past, Democrats believe the open-seat contest next year will be competitive as the state, and especially the suburban Chicago areas, has trended more toward Democrats.

Among Republicans, wealthy dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, state Sen. Chris Lauzen and Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns are expected to run.

Both Lauzen and Oberweis already have formed exploratory committees and have been preparing campaigns behind the scenes.

Hastert does not have a favored candidate per se in the contest, after state Sen. Tim Schmitz (R) declined to run. However, it is little secret in political circles that the Illinois lawmaker and his political operation are not warm to Lauzen — whose brash demeanor is viewed as the antithesis of Hastert’s style. It remains to be seen, however, if Hastert actually will come out publicly in support of another candidate, likely Oberweis.

Hastert endorsed Oberweis in the 2002 Senate primary, although the millionaire dairy business owner finished a distant second in the contest to an underfunded state lawmaker.

Oberweis has run unsuccessfully for statewide office three times before, spending heavily from his own pocket each time. Aside from the 2002 contest, he lost a 2004 Senate primary and also lost his bid for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination in 2006.

Despite these defeats, Oberweis is almost universally known in the Chicago area and will be able to stoke his campaign with his personal wealth.

On the Democratic side, party leaders appear to be lining up behind retired Fermilab scientist Bill Foster, who has the capacity to self-fund a good portion of his campaign.

State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D), widely viewed as the party’s strongest possible candidate, has said she won’t run.

Attorney Jotham Stein and John Laesch, a former military intelligence officer who was the party’s 2006 nominee, also are seeking the Democratic nomination.

While Democrats are optimistic about the changing demographics of the suburban areas, they have a shallow bench of top-tier candidates there.

And although the prospect of having Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) as the Democratic presidential nominee further fuels hopes of picking up the seat, the party still faces an uphill battle.

In the previous cycle, the retirement of Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) sparked an expensive and closely watched contest to succeed him in the neighboring 6th district.

Highly touted Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth (D), a political novice, garnered a disappointing 49 percent against now-Rep. Peter Roskam (R), who was then a state Senator.

Hastert’s district is slightly more favorable to Republicans than the 6th district is, and President Bush carried it in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote.

“We are excited about the quality GOP candidates that have already expressed interest in this seat,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) said in a statement. “The voters of Illinois’ Fourteenth Congressional District have elected Republican leadership and representation in the U.S. House for over twenty years and we are confident they will continue that tradition.”

Illinois is one of the only states to move up its Congressional primary along with the state’s presidential nominating contest, which has been moved to Feb. 5. Previously, the state held primaries in March and already had the earliest filing deadline for federal candidates in the country.