Illinois Primary Voters Set Up Competitive Fall

Posted February 6, 2008 at 6:34pm

Two free-spending millionaires are headed to a showdown in the March 8 special election to replace former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Illinois voters on Tuesday were the first in the nation to cast ballots in Congressional primaries this election cycle and helped set the stage for several potentially competitive general election races in the Land of Lincoln.

In the 14th district, where Hastert resigned in November, dairy magnate Jim Oberweis (R) will square off against wealthy scientist Bill Foster (D) in the special election — and again in November. Oberweis, who spent at least $1.7 million of his own money on the primary, beat state Sen. Chris Lauzen (R) in a bitter contest, 56 percent to 44 percent.

Oberweis, whose family runs a popular chain of ice cream stores in the Chicagoland area, is a well-known political commodity as well, having lost three recent campaigns for statewide office.

“Winning is a lot more fun than coming in second, I’ll tell you that,” Oberweis told supporters Tuesday night.

In the Democratic primary for the special election, Foster narrowly defeated the 2006 Democratic nominee, John Laesch, 49 percent to 43 percent.

But in the regular primary, while Oberweis’ margin over Lauzen was about the same as in the special primary, Foster beat Laesch by only 323 votes.

The 14th district in the Chicago suburbs and exurbs leans Republican, but Democrats believe they have a real chance of winning the seat, especially with Foster spending freely on a special election where turnout is expected to be low.

“I feel that, after a spirited discussion, voters will choose change,” Foster said in a statement Wednesday.

But in a strategy memo released Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee expressed confidence that the GOP will hold the seat. The committee noted that President Bush took 56 percent of the vote there in the 2004 White House election and that Oberweis will benefit from Hastert’s vigorous support.

“Oberweis’ pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, pro-tax cut, pro-growth and anti-wasteful spending positions mirror those of the voters of Illinois’ 14th District,” the memo read. “His ability to raise significant sums of money, combined with his access to personal resources, leaves him well positioned for the special general election.”

In other notable Illinois primaries Tuesday:

• Rep. Dan Lipinski (D) held off a spirited challenge from attorney Mark Pera (D) and is a shoo-in to win a third term in November. Lipinski had 53 percent of the vote to Pera’s 26 percent.

• Business consultant Dan Seals (D) is headed to a rematch with Rep. Mark Kirk (R) in the suburban 10th district after trouncing former Clinton White House official Jay Footlik (D), 81 percent to 19 percent.

Running without much fanfare or attention from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Seals held Kirk to 53 percent in 2006, and Democratic leaders believe he’ll have the firepower to deny Kirk a fifth term in November.

• In the suburban 11th district, where Rep. Jerry Weller (R) is retiring, New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann emerged from a three-way GOP primary and will face state Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson (D) in what is expected to be a highly competitive general election.

• In the central Illinois 18th district, where Rep. Ray LaHood (R) is retiring, 26-year-old state Rep. Aaron Schock (R) won his primary handily and is favored to win the seat in November. Democrats have no candidate at the moment after former basketball coach Dick Versace dropped out of the race in the fall. But the Democrats may be able to designate a ballot replacement later this year.

Democrats argue that in several competitive districts, the voter turnout in their primaries Tuesday far eclipsed the turnout in GOP contests — boding well for their candidates in the general election. Those Democratic turnout figures undoubtedly were inflated some by the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, the home-state favorite in Illinois — who may or may not be on the ballot in November.

Meanwhile, in the Republican Senate primary, wealthy physician Steve Sauerberg was the victor and goes into November as the heavy underdog against Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D).