Primary to face Foster triggers bad memories for Illinois Republicans

Political payback could turn an Illinois primary campaign into a Republican grudge match.

Less than two years after a divisive primary crippled the GOP’s hopes in a special election won by Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), Republicans are setting up strikingly similar battle lines in their February primary.

State Sen. Randy Hultgren announced his candidacy for the seat on Monday, joining attorney Ethan Hastert — the son of the district’s longtime congressman and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) — and several other candidates.

ADVERTISEMENT
Hultgren has drawn praise from state Sen. Chris Lauzen, who bloodied up businessman Jim Oberweis in the 2008 special primary before Oberweis went on to get upset in the general election. In that race, Oberweis had the backing of the elder Hastert and his political operation.

Republicans on the ground in the suburban Chicago district say Lauzen has been actively recruiting other candidates in a continuing grudge over the special election.

“He’s still as angry today as he was then,” said a GOP operative. “Whenever he talks about stuff, he’ll bring up how ‘they beat me up,’ and all that kind of stuff. He’s just an angry guy.”

In reality, Lauzen did his share of the mud-throwing in the 2008 race, which Republicans point to as an example of what to avoid in primaries.

Oberweis, who is supporting Ethan Hastert’s campaign, said his former opponent is exacting revenge for his loss.

“Mr. Lauzen does not hold Mr. Hastert in high esteem, which is a shame,” Oberweis said. “And I think this is sort of an attempt at payback, which is not good for the Republican Party.”

Oberweis said Hultgren will have to answer to supporters about his decision if and when he loses.

“I think it’s a mistake for him, and I think it’s bad for the party,” Oberweis said.

Oberweis and others noted that it’s yet to be seen how serious a candidate Hultgren will be, but Hastert has yet to completely establish himself at this point, either. Even Hastert’s advocates acknowledge the 31-year-old has work to do on the stump and on the fundraising front.

The former Speaker’s son turned in a decent fundraising report in the second quarter with $87,000 raised — all in one day at the very end of the quarter — but about three-quarters of his donors match up with donors to his father’s campaigns.

Hastert will rely heavily on his father’s name, and uses the same hastertforcongress.com Web address. Dennis Hastert resigned midway through his term, triggering a special election in March 2008.

A source who was close to the Oberweis campaign said the Hastert name is good for something but doesn’t do as much good as one might think. After all, with Hastert’s backing, Oberweis was still only able to get 56 percent of the primary vote.

“The Hastert name has an overall plus to it among GOP primary voters, but not by as much as you’d think,” the source said. “And it’s only a slight positive among the general electorate.”

The Hastert name has definitely not scared away other candidates, as one X-factor that remains in the primary is the presence of three other candidates. While two of them don’t appear to have much traction at this point, former Department of Defense official Mark Vargas has turned some heads among activists.

Sources said Vargas is cutting into the Hultgren-Lauzen supporters.

“You will have a lot of people lined up with Oberweis, with Hastert,” the GOP operative said.

“The Lauzen people split between Hultgren and Vargas.”

Lauzen told The Hill in a brief interview that he isn’t interested in running. He declined to comment on Ethan Hastert’s candidacy.

He has also said that Hultgren is a strong candidate.

“He has a solid record of fiscal responsibility, of voting for traditional values,” Lauzen told the Plainfield Sun, suggesting he might endorse Hultgren.

Regardless of what happens in the primary, Republicans note that Hultgren has talked about running a clean campaign, and even if the candidates can’t keep the race out of the mud, they will have plenty of time to recover. Whereas the 2008 special election featured a short turnaround between the primary and the general election, Illinois has the earliest primary in the country in 2010, giving the winner a full nine months to refocus on the Democrats.

Foster’s district remains one of the top GOP targets on the map, and despite going for President Barack Obama and Foster by double digits last year, still leans Republican, according to The Cook Political Report.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has admitted Hastert to its Young Guns program for congressional challengers, but it also hasn’t ruled out allowing more than one candidate from a primary into the program.

“This is a great pickup opportunity for us Republicans and we will do eveything we can to see that the Republican nominee retires Bill Foster next November,” NRCC spokesman Tom Erickson said.