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updated: 1/5/2011 7:40 PM

GOP takes over, new Illinois Congressmen step up

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  • New Illinois Congressmen Randy Hultgren, left, Bob Dold, Joe Walsh get ready to start work in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

      New Illinois Congressmen Randy Hultgren, left, Bob Dold, Joe Walsh get ready to start work in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
    Associated Press

 
By Kerry Lester

A chesslike Republican strategy is in the works, with the suburbs serving as key turf in advancing the party's power legislatively and politically on a national scale.

Moves one and two: Four young Republican congressmen, representing various ends of the conservative spectrum, ousted Democratic incumbents in Cook, Lake, McHenry, Kane and Will counties. The election of Congressmen Robert Dold, Joe Walsh, Randy Hultgren and Adam Kinzinger together represents the largest influx of suburban Republicans in more than two decades.

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And not only have Republicans gained seats, but they've also reclaimed former party strongholds. The 8th District seat in northern Cook and Lake counties -- now held by Walsh, a tea party member from McHenry -- was held for more than a decade by former Rep. Phil Crane. Hultgren, a St. Charles attorney and former state senator, beat out Democrat Bill Foster to claim the 14th District seat in Kane County, held for 20 years by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Move three: A suburban Republican -- 6th District Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton -- is placed in a key leadership position, as chief deputy whip.

The position is considered a steppingstone to top leadership positions in the party. Hastert took the same path in the mid-1990s, before he became speaker of the House.

The aforementioned combination puts the Illinois delegation in a powerful position, party leaders, experts and former lawmakers agree.

But maintaining and advancing that power over the next two years -- as a congressional map, influenced by top Illinois Democrats, is being redrawn -- will take even more careful maneuvering.

"It's going to be an interesting balancing act," said Kent Redfield, political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.

"They want to make policy, but they also want to get re-elected. I think they have more of a dilemma than Republicans who are in a state where you're adding seats and their party is in control."

Census data released in late December revealed that Illinois is one of 10 states that will lose a congressional seat, because of slow population growth. Texas and Florida, which are seeing rapid population growth, will each gain multiple seats.

In Illinois, Democrats have a big advantage in the "remap" process -- as they control the governor's office and the state House and Senate; all collectively determine how the new lines are drawn.

Republicans hold nearly all of the congressional seats in the suburbs -- with the exception of the 9th District, held by seven-term Evanston Democrat Jan Schakowsky.

As a result, Redfield surmises that come 2012, suburban candidates "are likely to be running in more Democratic districts because Democrats would like to construct (the map) to be more competitive. ... It's going to be a balancing act. They're going to be making some high-profile votes early on without knowing what their options are in terms of re-election."

With that in mind, former House Speaker Hastert says moving forward, teamwork will be key to both individual and collective success.

Hastert, who served as a representative from 1987 to 2007 and as speaker from 1999 to 2007, described the Illinois delegation in his day -- composed of moderates including 10th District Rep. John Porter and more hardline conservatives 8th District Rep. Phil Crane and 18th District Rep. Bob Michael -- as "really a strong team."

He said the mix of personalities and conservative viewpoints of the Illinois Republicans in the 112th Congress is ripe for re-creating such a unit.

"You've got (16th District Rep.) Don Manzullo and (13th Rep.) Judy Biggert, who've been around a long time. You've got Peter (Roskam), who has now taken on a role of leadership. So, if you put the new guys with them, and they start to work together with a coordinated effort, you can do a lot of things."

Roskam, in particular, he said, needs to work to pull congressmen together, to reach across the aisle to work with Democrats.

Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady, of St. Charles, said he's had conversations with newly elected lawmakers about focusing on their campaign promises as they begin their 2-year tenures.

"The lesson we learned in 2006 and 2008 is we need to listen to our constituents. Getting away from our core principles, that's when we lose," he said.

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