Gizzi on Politics: July 30-Aug 3

The Durbin Mission

Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) is Public Enemy No.1 in many conservative circles. The outspoken liberal Democrat (American Conservative Union rating: 7%) seems to have made criticizing the war in Iraq his favorite pastime, or so regular viewers of Senate proceedings on C-SPAN might conclude. So, even in a state where the GOP fared disastrously in its last trip to the polls, Republicans are searching for a legitimate rival to pit against Durbin in ‘08.

Many Illinois Republicans who spoke to Human Events correspondent Peter Sasso believe they have found their man in Illinois State Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Thomas. By all accounts, Justice Thomas is an articulate conservative leader. The former Chicago Bear football star made headlines last year when he successfully won a huge, widely reported libel verdict against the Kane County Chronicle and columnist Bill Page.
But Prairie State sources told Sasso that Thomas likely will watch this political game from the sidelines because of the makeup of the Illinois Supreme Court. The court currently has a 4-to-3 seat Democratic majority. Under state law, if Chief Justice Thomas resigned in order to run for the Senate, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich would almost surely name a Democrat to succeed him and thus increase his party’s edge on the court.

Waiting in the wings to challenge Durbin is Hinsdale GOP businessman Jim Nalepa. West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran Nalepa is also a veteran of Illinois politics who waged two close-but-losing races for the U.S. House from the Chicago area in 1994 and ’96. Self-styled “street corner conservative” Nalepa told Sasso that fundraising will be a major issue in his decision to run. He believes that for a Republican to successfully challenge Durbin, he will have to raise at least $15 million.

Despite the money problem, Nalepa firmly believes that there should be a formidable Republican Senate nominee because “Durbin has veered so far to the left that he is now a true liberal extremist.” He also believes that Illinois Republicans have veered off course in recent years by nominating moderates for various statewide offices, noting that “the moderate liberal GOP hasn’t elected anyone since 1978 [when liberal GOP Sen. Charles Percy won his third and final term].” Nalepa, who spent years after his last bid for Congress building up a highly successful executive search business, returned to active GOP politics two years ago when he made a strong run for the state Republican chairmanship. Defeated by Chicago businessman and party establishment favorite Andy McKenna in a contest before a small group of party officials with weighted votes, Nalepa nonetheless won high marks from grass-roots activists for his calls for an aggressive party leadership that is “more like Gen. George Patton and less like Caspar Milquetoast.”

Staying faithful to a true conservative platform, Nalepa feels the three most important issues are: illegal immigration (“we have to secure our borders first and foremost”), overspending in Washington and winning the war in Iraq.

Nalepa or any other conservative who is thinking about a challenge to Durbin will have to decide relatively early: The filing deadline for the February ’08 primary is November 5.

Hager to the Helm

Of mistakes, the hero of Harold Robbins’ The Adventurers, dashing playboy-diplomat Dax Xenos, quotes his late father as saying, “Mistakes breed experience, and experience breeds wisdom.”

So it was last week with 70-year-old John Hager. Six years after he lost the Republican nomination for governor, five years after he stunned fellow Virginia GOPers by becoming homeland security chief under Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, Hager returned to the battles last week to win the chairmanship of the state Republican Party. In a political comeback that must be called stunning, former Lt. Gov. Hager won the party helm on the second ballot at a meeting of the state Republican Committee in Richmond.

Hager defeated Charlie Judd, executive director of the party and the favorite of most party leaders (including outgoing Chairman Ed Gillespie, who gave up the post to become counselor to President Bush). Although Hager’s years of being away from party activities and past association with Democrat Warner were hurdles, Judd raised doubts among the committee members when he said he would remain in the paid job of executive director as well as hold the chairmanship.

“And John just used the tactic he has always used to overcome hurdles — old-fashioned hard work,” former Culpepper County GOP Chairman Jack Rohr, a top operative in Hager’s ’01 campaign, told me. According to Rohr, Hager (who contracted polio as an adult and uses a wheelchair) tirelessly worked the phones and met with committee members one on one to listen to their concerns about the party.

A Harvard Business School graduate and former tobacco company executive, Hager served as U.S. assistant secretary of Education until opting for the party chairmanship. Upon winning the race, he asked Judd to stay on as executive director. Both Hager and Judd are considered strong conservatives and each had backing from conservatives and moderates on the state committee.

A familiar name also re-emerged in the Virginia party: Rick Neal, Arlington attorney and former 8th District GOP chairman, was elected party treasurer. Neal is the namesake son of the pilot killed in the 1978 plane crash that took the life of Richard Obenschain, the father of the modern Virginia Republican Party and the Republican nominee for the Senate that year.

No ‘Sen. Strom Thurmond, Jr.’–Yet

For a time last week, the hottest political news in South Carolina was the rumored return of the state’s most illustrious political name: Strom Thurmond. With the resignation of Democratic State Sen. and ’06 gubernatorial candidate Tommy Moore to take a position with a national payday-lending association, the Republican talked of almost immediately as a candidate in the upcoming special election for the Aiken-area district was 34-year-old Strom Thurmond, Jr., son of the late, legendary South Carolinian who served in the U.S. Senate from 1954 until his retirement in 2002 at the age of 100.

Young Thurmond served as a U.S. attorney from 2001-04 and is now in private law practice in Aiken. Republicans almost universally welcomed his rumored bid for office, with State Party Chairman Katon Dawson telling the Columbia State: “The Thurmond name is the gold standard in South Carolina Republican circles.”

But it was not to be — not yet anyway. Last week, Strom Thurmond, Jr., announced he would not run for the state senate, noting that while he lives near the open 25th District, he doesn’t actually live in it, and he did not want to uproot his family for the move into the district that would be required under the state constitution.

From Capitol Hill to Campaign Trail

Fourteen months before the Republican National Convention meets in Minneapolis, the major presidential hopefuls continue to sign up some familiar politically-savvy operatives.
Bob Holtse, longtime campaign manager and chief of staff for Rep. Phil English (R.-Pa.), recently left Capitol Hill to join former New York City Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign. Long considered English’s Karl Rove, Holtse will be national coalitions director of the New Yorker’s campaign.

Another highly regarded Capitol Hill notable hitting the campaign trail is Will Holley, press secretary for Rep. Scott Garrett (R.-N.J.). Notre Dame graduate Holley will be the spokesman for former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign in the South Carolina primary. He formerly served in the Bush White House, where he became a popular fixture among White House correspondents while an assistant to then-Press Secretary Scott McClellan.