The 51-year-old state senator, a widow who lives with her mother, had been lobbied by members of Illinois’s congressional delegation and state GOP officials.
“I can’t tell you what an honor it was to feel that people at that level … felt that I was capable of joining them and being a member of their ranks,” Althoff said. “But I believe that I’m best-suited here.”
Althoff offered no further explanation for her decision to bow out of the race after months of speculation except to say, “I haven’t done anything for the last two weeks except talk about this.”
The 8th District seat had been in the Republican column for decades before Bean knocked off Crane last year in one of the only upsets in the 2004 cycle. Since the day Bean took office, Republicans have been targeting the seat.
The suburban Chicago district is but one small swatch of a sprawling tapestry of House and Senate races across the Midwest, ground zero in the national contest for control of Congress in 2006.
While Democrats have their eyes on Republican-held House seats in eastern Iowa, southern and central Minnesota, eastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, the GOP hopes to pick up retiring Democrat Mark Dayton’s Senate seat in Minnesota and beat Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), although Republicans have yet to recruit a viable candidate in Michigan. Privately, one Republican official said the party has little hope of defeating Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).
Democrats also have long harbored hopes of picking up Republican Rep. Jim Leach’s seat in southeastern Iowa, should the 15th-term congressman step down. While Leach has managed to fend off attacks from the left and right, the district, encompassing the university town of Iowa City, is rich in Democrats.
Also, Leach is next in line to chair the House International Relations Committee. If party leaders’ decisions to remove Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) as committee chairmen are any indication, however, Leach, an abortion-rights supporter, could face trouble ascending to the top spot. Leach spokesman Gregory Wierzynski said he was unaware of any effort to block Leach and how that might affect Leach’s reelection plans.
Mike Erlandson, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic Party and chief of staff for Rep. Martin Sabo (D), said that his was the only blue state in the country to give Sen. John Kerry a wider margin than Al Gore enjoyed in 2000.
Erlandson estimated that it would cost each side roughly $15 million to compete for Dayton’s Senate seat.
Three Democrats are considering bids — Patty Wetterling, who ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) last year; Hennepin County prosecutor Amy Klobuchar; and Mike Ciresi, a trial attorney who has battled tobacco companies.
Kennedy has emerged as the handpicked candidate of mainstream Republicans in the state, including Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).
Shedding light on how Democrats will run against Kennedy, Erlandson said: “I think it’ll be very clear to Minnesotans that a vote for Mark Kennedy is a vote for the agenda of George W. Bush, which suffered a defeat in 2004.”
Erlandson added that Dayton’s decision to exit the Senate does not reflect poorly on Democrats’ chances of holding on to the seat. “Senator Dayton’s decision to not seek reelection was mostly because … he didn’t have the energy to do battle.”
Democrats in Washington have voiced hope of snagging Kennedy’s 6th District seat, to the northwest of Minneapolis.
One Minnesota Democratic official described the district as a “schizophrenic” mix of socially conservative Catholic voters of German descent, centrist Republicans and unaligned, working-class families. “It’s Jesse Ventura country,” he said, referring to the independent former wrestler-turned-governor.
NRCC spokesman Carl Forti dismissed talk of the Republicans’ losing the seat. “We don’t have any concern about holding that seat,” he said.
In Illinois, a Republican source said Democrats should not think that because House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who turns 81 next month, received a narrower winning margin last year than in 2002 the district is trending Democratic.
“I think the signal on Hyde’s vote was, you know, ‘You’re getting on in age, and it’s hard to move around, but we still love you, so here’s 55 percent,’” the GOP source said. “But it’s not necessarily party shift. We just need a young guy who’ll be at every barbecue.”
The source added that state Rep. Mark Beaubien (R) would be the most viable contender to take on Bean now that Althoff is out.
Democratic consultant Christine Cegelis, who lost to Hyde in 2004, is said to be interested in running in 2006.
Outside the Midwest, the Democrats are particularly enthused about winning Rep. Bob Beauprez’s 7th District seat should the congressman vacate it to run for governor of Colorado.
A House Democratic aide said Ed Perlmutter, an attorney and former state senator, and Peggy Lamm, a former state representative, are primed to run for the district, in the Denver suburbs.
The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato predicted that ultimately the House and Senate races would yield little change in Washington, as was the case last year. “The Republicans could go up two, they could go down two,” Sabato said. “It’s really governorships where Democrats have a chance to add four or five. That’s where the six-year itch could show up,” he said, referring to the six-year mark of the Bush White House.