LaHood a front-runner in GOP departure from Congress

When U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election, some progressives wondered: Did his decision stem from the difficulty of once more legislating by collaboration and compromise without the dominance of controlling both houses of Congress (indeed, all three branches of the federal government), or the difficulty of trying to be a part of cleaning up the colossal mess the Bush administration has made in the last six years?

Further, will Democrats accept the dismissive generalization that the 18th Congressional District is a “safe” Republican stronghold, or dedicate resources to a viable candidate?

LaHood, 61, implied he wants to spend more time with his family.

“During the past 30 years, my family, and particularly my wife Kathy, has carried many burdens and responsibilities alone as I spent time away from them in an effort to live out my political dream and fulfill my obligations as a public servant,” he said in his announcement. “It is time for me to attempt to repay that debt, and I truly look forward to many wonderful years with my wife, my children and my grandchildren.”

LaHood is a good man who was accessible, dedicated to constituent services, brought home more federal money than Washington took from the area, and for some time mimicked his mentor Bob Michel in bi-partisan communications.

LaHood is a good man who also seemed to relinquish his independent streak to play ball with Bush.

A member of the GOP’s class of 1994, he was one of the few who wouldn’t sign Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” Initially a moderate, LaHood eventually carried water for Republican power brokers. In 2004, he offered an amendment to a spending bill that would have prevented lame-duck lawmakers from filing ethics complaints – protecting disgraced Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) from a complaint turned in by U.S. Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas). DeLay eventually was forced to resign, was indicted and remains under investigation for ties to imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Of course, LaHood also presided at the impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying about a stupid act of marital infidelity. But he’s done little about Bush seemingly subverting the Republic’s checks and balances and violating the U.S. Constitution, from unauthorized spying on U.S. citizens, okaying torture and holding people without charges, to misrepresenting the case for invading and occupying Iraq, usurping governors’ control of their National Guard units and adding signing statements to laws he won’t enforce.

LaHood is just one of six Republicans from the House and Senate who are quitting (as of press time), also including U.S. Reps. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Deborah Pryce (Ohio), Chip Pickering (Miss.) and Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and U.S. Sen. Allard (Colo.). Dozens more could follow.

LaHood seems to lend credence to that in remarks he made to the New York Times in mid-August.

“I think our party’s chances for winning the majority back next time are pretty bleak at the moment, and I will admit to you that being in the minority is less fun,” he said. “People are going to continue to have heartburn over the war. Democrats will win the White House, hold their majority in the House and in the Senate in 2008, and then in 2010 we will have an extraordinary opportunity in the off-year of a Democratic presidency and Congressional majorities to possibly win it back. But it is not going to happen the next time.”

David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report was somewhat sympathetic.

“It’s no fun to be in the minority,” he said. “2008 is likely to be a tougher year for Republicans than 1996 was for Democrats

The GOP – already behind Democrats 231-202 in the House – will be forced to defend a lot of open seats. Others mentioned as possible Republican retirees are Don Manzullo (Ill.), Jerry Lewis (Calif.), Bill Young (Fla.), Hobson, Ralph Regula (Ohio), Rick Renzi (Ariz.) and James Saxton (New Jersey) in the House, and John Warner (Va.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) in the Senate.

Just two House Democrats aren’t seeking re-election: Tom Allen (Maine) and Mark Udall (Colo.).

Apart from the difficulty of governing are the challenges of campaigning, and Democrats are outdoing Republicans in fund raising. The House Democratic Campaign Committee reports $19.5 million, while the House Republican Committee reports $2 million. The Senate Democratic Campaign Committee reports $20.3 million while the Republican Senate Committee reports $5.8 million – and 22 of 49 GOP Senators must run in 2008.

Republican leaders are bouncing between proclaiming the 18th District a safe GOP seat and the more modest “leaning Republican.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that the 18th District is a “Republican stronghold” and predicted it “will remain in the red column.” However, that’s anywhere from naïve to misleading.

Central Illinois is hardly a shoe-in for whomever the GOP runs. Sure, LaHood’s seven terms were mostly landslide victories, but they were almost all against weak or poorly funded foes. After defeating substantive Democratic challenger Doug Stephens in 1994, LaHood ran unopposed in 1998 and 2002, and beat opponents such as Joyce Harant and Steve Waterworth by two-to-one margins, largely due to lackluster support from the Democratic party and weak campaigns.

Further, however, although George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in 17 of the 20 counties in the 18th District by an average of 58%-41%, Democrat Barack Obama in the same election won all 20 counties with an average tally of 60%. So much for partisan loyalty.

Lastly, a look at legislative scorecards from a cross-section of progressive and conservative interest groups seems to show that LaHood is more conservative than District voters. In alphabetical order, here are some interest groups, and their most recent “grades” of LaHood:

American Association of University Women (AAUW)- 40%

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)- 25%

American Conservative Union- 74%

American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Ornizations – (AFL-CIO)- 27%

Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)- 11%

Christian Coalition- 92%

Environmental Illinois- 54%

Human Rights Campaign- 25%

Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)- 0%

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)- 39%

National Right to Life Committee- 100%

Bill Knight is an award-winning journalist who teaches at Western Illinois University. Contact him at

Bill Knight

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