Politics 2005: Week of March 21

Hyde and Pete

With the Illinois primary less than a year away, the most-discussed political question among Prairie State Republicans is “What will Henry Hyde do?” The dean of Illinois’s congressional delegation and a nationally recognized figure from his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee during the 1998 Clinton impeachment hearings, silver-haired, cigar-smoking Hyde (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 84%) is widely expected by friends and allies to soon announce he will relinquish the 6th District seat he has held since 1974.

“Hyde told me last month he hoped to decide in April,” wrote veteran pundit Eric Krol in the suburban Chicago Daily Herald (March 11). Sources close to the House International Relations chairman privately say that Hyde’s age (80) and limited mobility following back surgery two years ago make him very likely to step down.

Should the venerable conservative officially retire next month, the odds are strong that his successor will be a close friend and onetime staffer: state Sen. Pete Roskam of Wheaton, a stalwart conservative who in 1998 narrowly lost a heated primary for Congress to liberal Republican Judy Biggert in the neighboring 13th District. In that campaign, then-state Rep. Roskam carried the endorsement of mentor Hyde, who has a history of almost never getting involved with a candidate before the GOP primary.

“If Henry runs again, I’ll support him whole-heartedly, but if he doesn’t, I intend to look at the race,” the 43-year-old Roskam told me last week, dropping by for a visit before the House-Senate Republican dinner in Washington. Although the possibility of Roskam’s trying to succeed Hyde is nothing new, it has taken on new meaning since two other conservative Republicans considered leading rivals have publicly said they won’t run for Congress. State Sen. Dan Cronin of Elmhurst and Elk Grove Mayor Craig Johnson have both said they will remain in their present offices regardless of what Hyde does.

In 1998, attorney and three-term state legislator Roskam moved from the 6th District a few miles to the 13th District to run for the seat of retiring Republican Rep. (1982-98) Harris Fawell. (Interestingly, when he won his first congressional race in 1974, then-state Rep. Hyde made a similar move from outside to inside the 6th District). With his move, Roskam has positioned himself for a showdown with Biggert, a opponent in Springfield on virtually every major issue. The two lawmakers had had a particularly emotional debate over barring state funding for partial-birth abortion, with Roskam leading the charge for the ban and Biggert against it. Roskam also differed strongly with Biggert by opposing any tax increases.

Biggert topped Roskam 45% to 40% in the five-candidate ’98 primary. But, said the Almanac of American Politics, “Biggert raised far more money,” including $402,000 of her own funds and contributions from Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign. (She has voted for gay-rights bills.) And she won the endorsement of [then] Gov. Jim Edgar as well as Fawell.”

But, as Ronald Reagan liked to say, “There are second acts in politics.” When a state Senate seat opened up in 2002, Roskam was the pick of DuPage County Republican leaders for the vacancy. As in the House, the Wheaton lawmaker is usually found in the forefront of most major conservative causes in the Senate. He once said he hasn’t “seen gun control that’s worked or been effective in crime control” and was a leading opponent of the gay-rights bill that Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich recently signed into law.

Short Takes

Asa’s Upward: To the surprise of very few in Arkansas, former GOP Rep. (1996-2001) and former top U.S. Homeland Security Department official Asa Hutchinson announced last week that he would seek the Republican nomination for governor when incumbent GOPer Mike Huckabee is termed out in ’06. Now associated with the high-powered Venable law firm in Washington, Hutchinson recently told me how his wife and two of his four children have moved back to Arkansas and “I expect that our two older children and I will soon complete the move.”

The announcement by Hutchinson (lifetime ACU rating: 83%) means that for the first time in 16 years, state Republicans will have a primary between two well-known heavyweights. Hutchison will clash with Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, namesake-son of the state’s first Republican governor (1966-70) since Reconstruction. As well-known as Rockefeller is, Hutchinson pointed out that “48% of the state primary vote comes from my former district” and that he has a much more solid record on cultural issues, such as abortion, than Rockefeller.

GOP Cup Overflows in Michigan: For those who worried that Michigan Republicans under Chairman Saul Anuzis would have to scrape for a well-known candidate against Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow next year, fear not. Seventeen months before the primary, two well-known GOPers have just launched exploratory committees to lay the groundwork for a Senate race: the Rev. Keith Butler, a former Detroit councilman, who is black, and Jane Abraham, wife of former Sen. (1994-2000) and Secretary of Energy (2001-2005) Spence Abraham. Both Butler and Abraham, onetime head of the conservative Susan B. Anthony List, are considered strong conservatives.

Gutknecht Out, Kennedy Up: Republican operatives in Minnesota and Washington breathed a bit easier last week when Rep. Gil Gutknecht announced he would not run for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton next year. The decision of Gutknecht (lifetime ACU rating: 94%) now leaves three-term Rep. Mark Kennedy (lifetime ACU rating: 92%) in a commanding position to win the GOP nod in ’06. At this point, the lone obstacle between Kennedy and the Senate nomination is former Sen. (1994-2000) Rod Grams, who was unseated by Dayton in 2000. Most Gopher State GOP leaders hope that Grams, whose re-election was plagued by negative stories about his personal life, won’t attempt the comeback bid. Meanwhile, eight Democrats in county and legislative office are being boomed for nomination to Dayton’s seat.

Post-Bush: With Republican Gov. Jeb Bush termed out in ’06, maneuvering for the Florida statehouse is already in full swing. According to a just-completed Strategic Visions poll, 35% of Sunshine State Republicans favor state Atty. Gen. Charles Crist for the gubernatorial nod, 20% favor Chief Financial Officer (and past holder of other statewide offices) Tom Gallagher, and 13% support Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings. All are considered moderate-to-conservative.

Among Democrats, the early front-runner is former state education commissioner and narrow ’06 U.S. Senate loser Betty Castor with 31%, according to Strategic Visions. The runner-up (14%) in the poll–businessman Edward “Bud” Chiles, son of the late Sen. (1970-88) and Gov. (1990-98) Lawton Chiles–recently announced he would not run for his father’s old job because he did not meet the Sunshine State’s seven-year residency requirement. Rounding out the race are Rep. Jim Davis with 8%, state Democratic Chairman Scott Maddox 7% and state Sen. Rod Smith 5%.

Under an election reform law signed by Bush, there is no longer a run-off if no primary candidate gets 50% of the vote. Instead, the top vote-getter in primaries now becomes the nominee, regardless of his percentage of the vote.

All Quiet on the Western Front (New Mexico): For more than a year, New Mexico Republicans saw political fratricide up close, as the forces of former state party chairman John Dendahl and the woman who unseated him, state Sen. Ramsey Gorham, continued to duke it out. In spite of schism, the Land of Enchantment delivered its five electoral votes to President Bush last fall, a turnabout from 2000. Gorham, under pressure to choose either the chairmanship or run again for the Senate, stunned supporters and opponents alike by announcing she would do neither. Even more surprising was that there was no competition to succeed her as chairman. The choice of all factions was Allen Weh, a retired U.S. Marine colonel. Albuquerque man Weh had been a vigorous volunteer in the campaigns of Rep. Heather Wilson and of Bush and is considered a strong conservative.