Hastert Rules Out Another Run

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), who last year became the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House, will announce Friday that he will not seek reelection, Republican House aides said yesterday.

GOP aides say that Hastert is likely to serve out the rest of his term, but that he has been considering resigning from the House this year. If he did, Hastert would trigger a special election that could give an indication of whether Democrats are continuing their political surge or whether Republicans have stanched the bleeding in GOP-leaning districts.

Hastert's departure has been expected since a Democratic wave in November washed him from the speaker's chair, which he had occupied since December 1998. Just days after the elections, Hastert resigned from the House GOP leadership and has served quietly as the congressman from the far suburbs of Chicago.

Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach, has remained a popular figure among House Republicans. During his eight-year speakership, he was often said to be the glue that held the fractious GOP majority together. While then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) resorted to threats and intimidation to keep the troops in line, Hastert used his personal appeal. GOP members simply did not want to disappoint him.

"If Denny ever decided to leave, his Capitol Hill presence would be greatly missed," said Ron Bonjean, a former senior aide to Hastert.

The former speaker's reputation was damaged late last year, however, when a House ethics committee report detailed how his senior staff appeared to hide allegations that then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had made inappropriate advances toward male House pages. Senior House leaders, such as Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), told the ethics panel that they had alerted Hastert about the allegations against Foley months before they became public.

In addition to his handling of the Foley scandal, Hastert has been dogged by ethics questions regarding highway funding bill earmarks affecting land close to property that he owns.

Like other exurban districts, Hastert's once-solidly Republican district of suburban and rural voters has drifted toward the Democratic Party. Hastert won reelection in November with a comfortable 60 percent of the vote, but that was down from 69 percent in 2004 and 74 percent in 2002.

Two Republican candidates for Hastert's seat have already emerged -- state Sen. Chris Lauzen and Jim Oberweis, a well-funded investment adviser and dairy farmer who has run for office several times.

But a special election could give the GOP trouble, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. President Bush took 55 percent of the vote in 2004 in Hastert's district, a majority that was small enough for some Democratic candidates to win in other districts in 2006. A special election would hinge on turnout; and for the moment, Republicans are demoralized by an unpopular president and an unpopular war, while Democrats are energized for the same reasons.

Democratic businessman Bill Foster has already jumped into the race, pledging to commit $2 million of his own money. Foster raised $131,000 in April, May and June; and with $107,000 of that still in the bank, he has already established himself as financially competitive with Hastert.

"In the current environment, the Democrats are going to take a look at any district like this, particularly if it's an open seat," said Nathan L. Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

More troubling for Republicans, Hastert's decision could be the leading edge of a wave of GOP retirements that would tax the party's already-strapped resources even more. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), from nearby Peoria, announced his retirement just weeks ago.

Washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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