Illinois GOP Scrambles to Fill Vacancy

Posted March 14, 2008 at 6:14pm

After watching a local dairy magnate flush away $2.3 million-plus in a nearby district to lose former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) seat, cash-strapped Illinois Republicans are warning it’s unlikely a free-spending replacement will step forward to fill a vacant GOP ballot spot in Rep. Jerry Weller’s (R) central Illinois district.

Republicans have been scrambling ever since their nominee in the 11th district, New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann, abruptly dropped out of the race to replace Weller a few weeks ago.

“I don’t think [we’re] going to find any candidate who’s going to self-finance the race,” Will County Republican Chairman Dick Kavanagh told Roll Call last week. “At the same time, we can’t expect the [National Republican Congressional Committee]to fully fund the race.”

Kavanagh declined to elaborate on ongoing talks by party officials in the eight counties that make up Illinois’ 11th district. He did confirm that a final decision is expected before April 1 and that the original list of 20 possible candidates has been whittled down to six.

And of the six possible replacements, Kavanagh said the committee had interviewed three potential candidates as of late last week. “I’m not going to comment on any names,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll meet again over the next couple weeks and come to some consensus.”

Despite Kavanagh’s hesitation to name names, sources have identified Chicago-area concrete contractor Martin Ozinga and regional pizza chain owner Harry Bond as shortlisters to replace Baldermann, who won the Land of Lincoln’s primary on Super Tuesday but walked away from his general election matchup against state Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson (D).

Halvorson is a top recruit of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and despite the Republican lean of the district in recent presidential contests, Democrats believe they have an excellent chance of putting the seat in their column in November.

Ozinga and Bond declined to discuss the race when contacted last week. Still, both are prominent local businessmen who undoubtedly could contribute significant sums to their campaigns, but an amount that is likely in the hundreds of thousands, not the millions of dollars that Chicago-area dairy owner Jim Oberweis (R) dropped in the March 8 special election to replace Hastert.

Oberweis spent $2.34 million of his own money and has now lost four elections in recent years — costing him more than $6 million. He has pledged to spend an additional $2.5 million on his November rematch with now-Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.).

Illinois state Rep. Renée Kosel (R) was frequently mentioned early as a possible Baldermann ballot replacement. She confirmed in an interview late last week, however, that she has asked Kavanagh and the other county-level leaders to remove her name from consideration.

“I told them that I wish to not be considered,” Kosel said in an interview. “I am not running for Congress.”

Kosel said she is comfortable in the Land of Lincoln’s General Assembly and cited massive fundraising obstacles she could face not only this year, but in subsequent cycles.

“Whoever runs for that seat really has to want to win … I don’t want that prize,” Kosel said. “I do not want to spend 60 percent of my time fundraising … 40 percent is enough.”

Kosel also said family considerations played a major role in her decision to ask Kavanagh to remove her name from the running.

“A whole bunch of specific reasons, eight of them I’m looking at a picture of right now — [my] eight grandchildren,” Kosel said in a telephone interview Thursday evening. “The ninth reason is my husband, who’ll be home any minute.”

Weller’s 11th district takes in eight counties stretching west from Chicago exurbs Joliet and Kankakee and south to the central Illinois population hub Bloomington-Normal. The eight Republican party chairmen’s votes to name Baldermann’s replacement are weighted proportionally according to the 2008 primary turnout — in this case, a range of less than 1 percent to roughly half of all overall districtwide vote.

Kavanagh, who represents populous Will County southwest of Chicago, has more than 47 percent of the vote to name Baldermann’s replacement, a decision he repeatedly stressed will be a “consensus” pick.

According to Illinois guidelines, party-affiliated county leaders within a given Congressional district have until 67 days preceding the general election — the date the ballots are certified — to name a replacement candidate post-primary. And should ongoing talks fail to produce a consensus, a state Republican committeewoman would cast a tie-breaking vote.

“We could hold off until August, but that doesn’t make any sense at all,” Kavanagh said.