Hastert and Lott Both Pose Questions for Republicans

What Is Hastert’s Endorsement Worth?

In election cycles from 2000-06, J. Dennis Hastert was one of the most-sought-after campaigners for Republican candidates.  The Speaker of the House, the top Republican office-holder in the nation after George Bush and Dick Cheney, was probably more personally liked among the GOP grass-roots than the President or Vice President. The one-time high school wrestling coach was “The Coach” to county leaders, donors, and party workers — a loveable, bear-like  figure who never said a harsh word about political opponents. He could be counted on to pack a fund-raising dinner with contributors from disparate party factions.

With Republicans losing the House in ’06 and Hastert announcing his retirement from Congress earlier this year, it was inarguable that the currency of “the Coach” as party sachem and fund-raiser would be devalued.  Indeed, he was the first former House Speaker since fellow Republican Joe Martin of Massachusetts to stay in the House as one of the 435 Members after relinquishing his gavel.

Now he has resigned from Congress altogether and the question pundits and pols wonder is what is Hastert’s endorsement worth in his own district?  Last week, the former speaker and former congressman weighed in with a strong endorsement of investment banker and dairyman Jim Oberweis as his successor in the Republican primary and special election in February.  In past election cycles, Oberweis could not be blamed for checking out homes in the Washington area or interviewing staffers after being endorsed in a primary by Speaker Hastert.

What’s different this year is that Denny Hastert is no longer “Mr. Speaker” or “Congressman Hastert” but “Mr. Hastert.”  And that could be very different.

Oberweis’s leading primary opponent is State Sen. Chris Lauzen, one of the “Fabulous Five” of conservative Republican legislators when he won his first term in Springfield in 1992.  Oberweis is also conservative and there is little disagreement on issues save who should be congressman from the 14th District.

Following Hastert’s blessing of Oberweis, Lauzen promptly did what would have been the equivalent of laughing aloud in Church in 14th District GOP politics a year ago:  he took a whack at Hastert.

Former Congressman Hastert’s [italics added] decision [to endorse Oberweis] is what this campaign is all about,” declared Lauzen, “big money and big Insider Establishment clout versus the rest of us in the grassroots.”

“The Hastert endorsement may be good for Oberweis (who has lost all three campaigns he’s ever run, including the 2002 Senate race, also with Hastert’s endorsement), but it’s bad for the people and bad for unity in the Republican Party.  Hastert has resigned; Oberweis is running against me.  Let the people decide.”

Strong medicine, all right.  We’ll know if it works soon enough; the Republican primary will be February 5 — the same day as the primary for the full term — and the special election will be held March 8.

The Latest On Lott’s Seat

As the Senate said farewell last week to Trent Lott, the infighting as to how his seat would be filled once his resignation was accepted grew fierce.

Gov. Haley Barbour is sure to appoint a fellow Republican to succeed Lott — most likely, pundits and pols agree, seven-term Rep. Roger Wicker.  The question is when the special election to fill out the remaining five years of Lott’s term will be held.

Yesterday, Democratic State Attorney General Jim Hood issued an opinion that a special election must be held within 100 days after Lott’s resignation.  This is a flat-out contradiction of the stand taken by Barbour, who has scheduled a special election next November 4 to fill Lott’s seat for the remainder of his term.  If this standoff persists, Hood wrote Barbour in a letter attached to his opinion, then a “resolution from the courts” would have to be forthcoming.

It is no secret that Democrats very badly want a special election sooner rather than in November — especially since their A-team candidate, former State Attorney General Mike Moore, announced last week that he would not run.  This leaves the field to two former governors — Ray Mabus and Ronnie Musgrove — both of whom ended their tenures in the statehouse after being defeated.  It appears that the only way either could win is in a special election with a low turnout — not in the fall on the same ballot with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.