Hastert to Leave November 5th?

Like a prairie fire from the Midwest, the hottest political rumor to sweep from Illinois to Washington yesterday had it that Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.), having already announced his retirement from Congress in ’08, would go a step further on November 5th and resign from office outright. Should the last Republican House speaker leave office, Illinois election law requires a special election to fill the resultant vacancy no later than 120 days later. But with the Prairie State’s presidential primary to be held February 5th, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich could easily save tax dollars by calling a special election in Hastert’s 14th District on the same day.

As to why Hastert would call it quits so early and trigger a special election that Republicans might well lose — and thus cause them considerable embarrassment in a presidential year — one source told me this morning: “Denny is just fed up with Congress. He can’t stand it being in the minority after being the longest-serving Republican speaker in history.”

In addition, a February 5th special election would force the parties to hold a primary in either December or January. An early bird Republican primary (or a districtwide convention of local party activists) would almost surely favor investment banker and dairyman Jim Oberweis, who is set to announce his candidacy to succeed Hastert this weekend. Stalwart conservative Oberweis unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator in 2002 and ’04 and the gubernatorial nomination last year. In all of the races, he placed second in crowded primaries and, in at least two of the races, he carried the 15th District. Hastert himself endorsed longtime friend Oberweis in the ’02 Senate primary, although the former speaker has so far not signaled a favorite to succeed him in Congress.

But in a shortened nomination process, Oberweis’ high name recognition from past races would in all likelihood make him the front-runner over his two Republican rivals — State Rep. Chris Lauzen, a conservative, and Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns, a moderate.

Although there are three Democrats expected to compete for nomination for Congress, the likely nominee is businessman Bill Foster, who has pledged to deploy $1 million of his own money in a primary and $1 million in a general election. Although the district has only had a Democratic congressman for two years since 1934 and is considered one of the two most reliably Republican in Illinois, special elections involve special circumstances and a Democratic upset is a possibility.

Will Hastert actually leave sooner rather than later? “I would say it’s not probable,” said one longtime friend of Hastert’s who spoke me under promise of anonymity, “but Denny did say he would serve as long as he felt he could be effective, and that’s a way out. So it’s possible.”