Hastert Has Edge in Illinois Primary

Posted January 25, 2010 at 6:11pm

For once, nice guys might finish first in Illinois.

In a district that has been marred by nasty GOP primary battles ever since former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) stepped down in 2007, the two candidates vying for the GOP nomination in the state’s 14th district have played relatively nicely with each other until recently.

That could prove to be pivotal for Republicans, who believe a negative primary paved the way for Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) to win in a 2008 special election.

Handicapping next Tuesday’s GOP primary between state Sen. Randy Hultgren and attorney Ethan Hastert, the former Speaker’s son, is somewhat difficult due to the fact that the district has experienced significant population growth over the past 10 years.

“It’s not downtown Chicago, but it’s not the Aurora of 10, 15 years ago,— said John Russell, a lobbyist and one-time aide to the former Speaker. “I would argue it’s fundamentally a conservative district still … and with the Republican infighting in the special and the election that followed, it really hurt the party.—

Russell said that because of explosive population growth in Kane and Kendall counties, the district is no longer a “sleepy rural community— and has become increasingly competitive politically.

From the accounts of several Illinois Republicans and party officials, Hastert has the upper hand in the primary — although it remains to be seen whether his last name will ultimately be a boost to the first-time candidate.

One GOP operative suggested Hastert only needs to make a good showing in Kane and Kendall counties because he will likely perform well in the Republican-rich rural western part of the district. Hultgren is from DuPage County, the easternmost county in the district, but he said his state Senate district overlaps with only about 15 percent to 20 percent of the Congressional district.

An internal poll done for Hastert’s campaign and obtained by Roll Call supported that strategy. A McLaughlin & Associates survey of 300 likely primary voters taken Dec. 14-15 showed Hastert with a 2-1 edge over Hultgren, 45 percent to 20 percent, with 34 percent undecided.

The poll also showed Hastert held 23-point and 27-point leads in Kane County and the rest of the Chicago media market, respectively. In the rest of the district, he led Hultgren 48 percent to 14 percent.

But more importantly for Republicans, Hastert and Hultgren appear to be playing relatively nice for now — or at least nicer than the 2008 special election primary feud.

“I think it’s kind of indicative of both of their personalities,— said one Republican operative from the district. “It hasn’t gotten to that at this point. Ethan Hastert is starting to hit Hultgren a little bit— for some of his votes, “but that’s about it so far.—

In an interview, Hastert said he was under the impression that both candidates were running a positive primary until recently.

“I would have said it wasn’t as nasty until last week, until my opponent leveled some untrue attacks at me,— Hastert said, citing a piece of direct mail that accused him of condoning human trafficking.

Hultgren commented in a separate interview that he thought the primary had “been especially [nice] compared to the last primary in this district.—

While perhaps not as negative as the 2008 battle between wealthy dairy magnate and eventual GOP nominee Jim Oberweis and state Sen. Chris Lauzen, the battle still has hints of the long-standing feud between the senior Hastert and Lauzen. Foster defeated Oberweis in the 2008 special election, 53 percent to 47 percent, and then again in November of that year, 58 percent to 42 percent.

Hultgren said that Lauzen did not ask him to run, but that he is in regular contact with Lauzen because they are both in the state Senate.

“I’m running my own race. We’ve got our own staff,— Hultgren added.

While it may not be the same as the 2008 battle, several Republicans in the district view the contest as somewhat of a proxy battle and thought it was fishy that Hultgren entered the race late in September, just a little more than four months before the primary.

“A lot of people think it is,— one well-placed Republican operative said. “But why would Randy let himself be used by Lauzen if he isn’t going to run an effective campaign?—

While Hastert appears to have the upper hand in the polls, he definitely has the momentum when it comes to fundraising. Hultgren has raised $185,000 in the race so far, but he only reported about $10,000 in cash on hand as of Jan. 13. Hastert has raised almost $516,000 since he got into the race, and he reported having about $172,000 in the bank as of mid-January.

Foster, however, reported having more than $1 million cash on hand — an advantage that will come in handy running for re-election in the pricey Chicago media market. The winner of the GOP nomination will have about nine months to stockpile funds for what is expected to be an expensive race in November.

“I believe the district has changed in the past six years,— Kane County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Guethle said. “There’s more Democrats moving out to the district, all outside the city of Chicago. A lot more blue-collar voters.—