Illinois Candidates Dig Deep

Posted January 30, 2008 at 6:33pm

Politics can be priceless: endorsements, macaca-like moments and other freebies that move the campaign ball forward on the cheap. But when it comes to replacing former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), nothing appears to beat cash straight out of the candidates’ pockets.

All $3,837,169 of it.

The six candidates vying to replace Hastert are sparing no expense in their attempts to replace the iconic former wrestling coach, whose well-timed retirement last year created a potential 2-1 deal on a Congressional seat for both parties.

Next Tuesday 14th district Illinois voters will pick not only one Democrat and one Republican for the November ballot, but they also will choose a candidate from each party to run in the March 8 special election to fill the seat for the remainder of Hastert’s current term.

It’s instant incumbency up for grabs. For some candidates, no amount of money appears unreasonable to spend.

Land of Lincoln Republicans plotted extensively for the same-day arrangement, which is cheaper — an obvious plus for the cash-strapped GOP — and will ensure name recognition into the November 2008 general election.

In the previous cycle in Texas, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) and his state party honchos fell short in coordinating the timing of his retirement. On Election Day, then-Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula Gibbs’ (R) name appeared on the special election ballot to fill the remaining weeks on DeLay’s term, but Republicans had no nominee for the general election.

Sekula Gibbs won the special election, serving less than a month in Congress before now-Rep. Nick Lampson (D) replaced her. Still, Sekula Gibbs was stuck with the bill: She spent $251,000 of her own money on the race, or roughly $12,000 for each day of the three weeks she served in Congress.

Sekula Gibbs’ 2006 loan to herself, however, already is dwarfed by the fast-spending ways of the six candidates hoping to replace Hastert, the everyman GOP party leader who made his primarily exurban Chicago House district a Republican stronghold during his 11 terms.

According to CQ MoneyLine, as of the Jan. 16 pre-primary filing deadline only one of the six candidates, long-shot union carpenter John Laesch (D), had not written himself a check.

Chicagoland dairy king Jim Oberweis (R) told Roll Call last month that he will spend what it takes to win, a strategy he has frequently employed. Oberweis, a private equity manager who turned his family’s local milk business into a multistate ice cream empire, has dropped more than $6 million into two failed Senate bids and one gubernatorial race since 2002.

Through Jan. 16, Oberweis was making good on his recent promise, giving his House campaign roughly $1.7 million. He had about $400,000 on hand as of Jan. 16 and was $1.6 million in debt, according to CQ MoneyLine. Federal Election Commission records show Oberweis has not given his campaign any additional money in the past two weeks.

Oberweis spokesman Bill Pascoe said his boss’s free-spending ways “allow us to communicate” through direct mail and radio and television buys. The state Senate district of longtime Illinois lawmaker Chris Lauzen, Oberweis’ main Republican primary opponent, makes up roughly 50 percent of the House district.

“We’re going up against a 15-year politician, a guy who is very well-entrenched,” Pascoe said.

Lauzen did not respond to a Roll Call interview request Wednesday. While the Lauzen camp undoubtedly is capitalizing on his inherent advantage as a sitting state Senator, he, too, has not been shy about dipping into his own pockets. According to CQ MoneyLine, the accountant has lent his campaign about $650,000 so far this cycle. The campaign, which had $188,343 on hand as of Jan. 16, remained $324,750 in debt.

On the Democratic side, wealthy local scientist Bill Foster, the perceived frontrunner for the nomination, is well on his way to exceeding his early prediction of spending $2 million of his own money combined in 2008 — $1 million on the primary election and $1 million on the general election. As of Jan. 16, Foster had given his campaign about $920,000 so far this cycle. His campaign also had about $510,000 in the bank and $800,000 in outstanding debt.

Foster spokesman Tom Bowen said the complicated election schedule and well-publicized squabbling between Oberweis and Lauzen provides a window of opportunity.

“There’s only 30 days between the special and the primary [and] it’s imperative that we communicate not only to Democratic primary voters, but all voters — especially while Republicans are trashing themselves,” Bowen said. “We’re looking at the election right in front of us but if you’re not preparing for March 8 election, you’re not conducting your campaign the right way.”

Recent FEC filings also suggest Foster and Oberweis may be similar in more ways than one. While they are both very wealthy, during the past two weeks Foster gave his campaign an additional $500,000, bringing his total pre-primary investment to $1.42 million.