Which Conservatives Will Win in Illinois in 2010?

With less than a week to go before the Republican primary in Illinois February 2, there has been increasing national attention focused on some of the key races in the Land of Lincoln.  Just last week, for example, a Page One story in the New York Times highlighted the first-in-the-nation primaries of 2010 in which nominations will be decided for the Senate seat formerly held by Barack Obama and the governorship held until last year by disgraced Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

But there is another nomination battle in Illinois that is shaping up as a classic battle of conservative outsiders taking on the Republican establishment.  That is the race for the GOP nomination to oppose Democratic Rep. Bill Foster, who won the historically Republican 14th District in a much-watched special election last year after the resignation of veteran Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, the last Republican speaker of the House.

Squaring off in the Republican primary are swashbuckling conservative State Sen. Randy Hultgren and Ethan Hastert, former staffer for Vice President Dick Cheney and son of the former speaker. With three minor Republican candidates bowing out of the race (two endorsed Hultgren, one backed Hastert), the Hultgren-Hastert bout is expected to be close.

“I’ve been endorsed by a number of the ‘tea party’ groups, notably in Kane and Henry Counties,” Hultgren told me between campaign stops last week.  A lawyer and former state representative and DuPage County Board member, the 43-year-old Hultgren has emerged in the state senate as the heir to former Sen. (and now Judge) Ed Petka as the premier conservative “firebreather.”  Whether the issue is earmarks or the Second Amendment (Hultgren has the National Rifle Association endorsement for Congress) or abortion, one can usually find the gentleman from the 48th senatorial district in the middle of the fight and at a predictable volume: loud.  

To be sure, 31-year-old Ethan Hastert doesn’t disagree on much at all with Hultgren.  In fact, supporters like to say that, Hultgren’s NRA blessing notwithstanding, young Hastert is actually more of a “Second Amendment man” than his father.  But in the perception of many observers throughout the district, it is Hultgren the office-holder who is the outsider, hence his grass-roots support in the “tea party” movement. Hastert, in turn, is seen as “Mr. Inside through his strong influx of out-of-state contributions from political action committees, his endorsement by senior GOP fixtures such as Newt Gingrich, and, of course, who his father is.  

Can Hastert “Pull A Mubarak?”

Egypt-watchers have generally concluded that President Hosni Mubarak would like to engineer his succession in power by son Gamal.  But it is also a common view, noted the Financial Times, “that unless the president engineers a transition to Gamal Mubarak during his lifetime, it is not likely to happen.”

In much the same way, had the elder Hastert engineered his succession by his son while still in office, Ethan’s move to Congress could have taken place with ease.  But when he suddenly resigned from office last year and caused a special election, Hastert’s man Jim Oberweiss won a heated primary and proved to be a less-than-stellar candidate.  He lost the special election to Foster, who became the first Democratic congressman from the district in 70 years.

So even with former Speaker Hastert now an ex-congressman, one has to wonder, does his name still carry political weight among 14th District Republicans?

“It is still a well-known name, but politics is definitely a fickle business,” Hultgren told me, “There are people who remember the former congressman warmly, but there are also people who still feel that the timing of his resignation and the special election cost us the seat.  And there are those who still bring up the fact that Republicans were pushing earmarks in Congress while he was speaker.  So the name cuts both ways.”

In the twilight of the primary, Hultgren has picked up nearly all of the key newspaper endorsements, including those of the Chicago Tribune and the DeKalb Daily Chronicle.  A strong turnout in Republican-heavy DuPage County is also likely to help Hultgren.  

Should those factors — and a good dose of tea — will put Randy Hultgren over Ethan Hastert, it may be a defining moment in Republican politics this year.