Gizzi on Politics: Aug. 27-31

A Whiff of ’74?

“You guys are among the few left who can remember what it was like in ’74,” veteran Republican political operative Ken Klinge told a colleague and me over lunch last week.  He was referring to the “Watergate Year,” when reliable Republican voters and donors turned their backs on the GOP when the party was at its lowest ebb, allowing Democrats to capture near-two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress.  Recalling how he was executive director of the Virginia Republican Party during what can easily be called the party’s worst election year since World War II, Klinge said that “we finally had to take women off answering the phones at state headquarters because of what people were calling to say they thought of us.” 

The three of us remembered that two symptoms of the negative tide mounting against Republicans that year were the growing number of GOP office-holders announcing they would not run again in ’74 and the number of potentially attractive candidates who declined to run under the Republican banner that year. 

In just the last 10 days, several of us not-so-young political observers could smell the unpleasant scent of ’74 for Republicans once again.  No fewer than three veteran Republican U.S. House members announced they were stepping down next year, and rumors were rampant that more exits were coming soon.  One Illinois source told me that former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, having already said he would not run again, is so tired of serving in the minority in Congress that he will actually step down from office outright in early November and thus set the stage for a special election in Illinois’s 14th District that the GOP could well lose.

A look, then, at the three latest openings in the House. . . Post Hastert

Hastert’s announcement that he will leave the Western Illinois district he has held since 1986 was perhaps the least surprising House Republican exit. The onetime high school wrestling coach had long made it clear he was not going to stay around as just another member in the chamber where he had become the longest-serving Republican speaker (1998-2006) in history. 

As Hastert concluded his retirement statement, political eyes in the 14th District were on Jim Oberweis, investment banker and dairyman. Oberweis was poised to declare his intentions to run in the February 5 GOP primary. The conservative stalwart had made unsuccessful bids for nomination to the U.S. Senate in both ’02 and ’04 and for governor in ’06. In all three campaigns, Oberweis came in second in crowded primary fields. Last year, when he was the runner-up to liberal Judy Baar Topinka (who went on to lose the fall campaign for governor resoundingly), Oberweis ruffled feathers of liberal pundits and pols by running hard-hitting commercials advocating a tough stand on illegal immigration. 
In his ’02 Senate race, Oberweis ran with the strong endorsement of his friend Hastert.  The dairyman-candidate also is a resident of Kane County, which comprises 60% of the voters in the 14th District. 

The stumbling block for Oberweis is one conservatives frequently face in primaries for open offices: Another conservative is competing for votes on the right, so the one moderate GOPer could possibly emerge on top with a plurality of the votes.  The other conservative is State Rep. Chris Lauzen, who first won his seat in 1992 as one of a group of legislators known on the right as “the Fab Five” for their opposition to key initiatives by moderate Republican Gov. (1990-2002) James Edgar.  The lone moderate in the race is Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns, who will be able to tap into considerable money through his contacts as a professional fundraiser for charities.  While both Oberweis and Lauzen are strongly pro-life, for example, Burns will say only that he is “personally” opposed to abortion. 

Whoever wins what is sure to be a bruising primary will not be home free next year. After holding Hastert to a career-low re-election percentage in ’06, Democrats are now gearing up for a major assault on his open district with likely nominee Bill Foster.  A successful businessman and active civic leader, Foster has so far promised to spend $1 million of his own money on the primary and $1 million on the general election.

The Pryce Is Right No More

When Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce, who has carried Ohio’s Columbus-area 15th District since 1992, barely held on to office last year, the speculation started that the term she had just eked out would be her last. 

Sure enough, Pryce, having risen to holding the No. 4 position in the House GOP hierarchy, announced last week that she would not seek re-election in ’08.  On the Democratic side, Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy, who lost to Pryce by 1,054 votes in the closest U.S. House race in the Buckeye State last year, has long signaled she is running again. Following a rock ‘em, sock ‘em race that attracted a total of more than $5.5 million to the candidates, leftist Democrat Kilroy — who once branded the U.S. presence in Iraq “a recruiting tool for terrorists” — has already wrapped up the Democratic nomination nine months before the May primary.

But are Republicans going to give up on a district that has been securely in their hands since 1966?  Not on your life.  Although conceding that George W. Bush’s unpopularity had much to do with Pryce’s near-defeat last fall, local Republicans also noted that 2006 was a banner Democratic year throughout Ohio that was boosted by high-profile scandals involving longtime GOP fund-raiser Tom Noe and former Rep. (1994-2002) Bob Ney (R-Ohio).  Next year, they point out, the stench of scandal will have passed from the state and their ticket will be led by the Republican presidential nominee and by popular GOP Sen. George Voinovich.

Moreover, Republicans also appear to have ducked a primary for the House seat by lining up behind a well-known candidate, former state Auditor and State Atty. Gen. Jim Petro.  With the announcement by GOP state legislator and Iraq War veteran Steve Stivers that he would not run for Congress, Petro — a three-time winner statewide and losing candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nod last year — appears to be the certain GOP standard-bearer against Kilroy. Petro is considered conservative on cultural issues, although he is more closely identified with lower taxes and smaller government in the mold of former Rep. (1980-2000) and onetime House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio). 

‘Unassailable’ in Mississippi

While pointing out that the districts Republican incumbents were giving up in Illinois and Ohio were vulnerable to Democratic takeover, the New York Times last week conceded that the 3rd District of Mississippi, where Republican Rep. Chip Pickering is retiring, is “unassailable” Republican territory.

Thus, whoever wins the Republican nomination in the March primary or — if no candidate wins a majority of votes — the April 1 run-off is a cinch to succeed Pickering, namesake son of the former U.S. District judge whose nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals was blocked by Senate Democrats.

The first name to be considered as a possible Republican candidate last week was that of Gregg Harper, lawyer and Rankin County Republican chairman.  Well-liked in party circles, Harper’s main problem is that he is not a graduate of Mississippi State University, which has a strong presence in the 3rd District.  The favorite of MSU alumni is Whit Hughes, a local basketball hero who was once a starter in the NCAA playoffs.  Other possible GOP contenders include John Rounsaville, state head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Office (which distributes about $220 million in federal funds throughout the Magnolia State), State Treasurer Tate Reeves (who has more than $750,000 in his state campaign kitty, but none of which can be applied to a federal race) and Charlie Ross, who lost the primary for lieutenant governor this year.  All are considered strong conservatives in the mold of Pickering (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 95%).  “And don’t write Chip off for the future,” a former state legislator told me last week, “He’s leaving because he’s got five children and really needs to make more money. But he’s only 44. Just watch — he could be back running for governor in 2011 [when incumbent Republican Haley Barbour, if re-elected this year, must, by law, step down].”


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