WASHINGTON – The man President Bush has called "the architect" for his ability to plan political victories has revealed his early take on the 2008 elections — and the outlook isn't pretty for Illinois Republicans.
In a PowerPoint presentation unintentionally released to the public, White House adviser Karl Rove predicted Republicans won't be able to unseat Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's second-highest ranking Democrat.
No Illinois House members made Rove's list of the 20 most vulnerable Democratic incumbents. But three Illinois Republicans are on his list of seats the GOP must work hardest to protect: freshman Rep. Peter Roskam, who narrowly defeated Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth; Rep. Mark Kirk, a six-year House veteran; and former House Speaker Denny Hastert, who may not seek re-election.
The assessment — posted on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Web site after being obtained as part of an investigation of a briefing by a Rove aide — has drawn cheers from Democrats and skepticism from Illinois Republicans.
"In this rare instance, we think Karl Rove has made some sense," said Ryan Rudominger, the Midwest spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which finances races and often recruits candidates.
But Illinois Republicans aren't buying it.
Some, including state Republican Party Chairman Andy McKenna, said the GOP actually could end up with a net gain of two House seats — and an 11-8 edge in Illinois' U.S. House delegation — by defeating Rep. Melissa Bean, who won her first election by upsetting 35-year GOP House veteran Phil Crane in her suburban Chicago district, and freshman Rep. Phil Hare of Rock Island, a former aide to Rep. Lane Evans.
Hare spokesman Tim Schlittner said the GOP is overly optimistic, noting that Hare received "a resounding 57 percent of the vote last fall, one of the highest margins of victory among open seats."
But Democrats themselves acknowledge there could be a fight for Bean's seat. The Democratic campaign committee listed her among 29 Democratic House members who need the most help to defend themselves against GOP opponents.
And Durbin aide Mike Daly cautioned against making too much of Rove's presentation, which was made in January when Democrats had just regained control of the House and Senate. He noted that there are few candidates at this early stage in the campaign cycle and much can happen before next year's elections.
Still, if other national GOP leaders agree that Durbin is unbeatable, they would be less likely to spend a significant amount of money to unseat him, reserving their money for more competitive races and to defend vulnerable House seats. Instead, they likely would encourage wealthy candidates — who could largely pay their own way — to challenge Durbin.
McKenna, of the state GOP, said Durbin is not invincible. He said he has met with about a dozen potential Durbin challengers, "maybe half in a serious way," in recent months. Long Grove businessman Steve Greenberg, 36, said he met with McKenna last month and discussed taking on Durbin. Greenberg expects to make a decision by June.
While Republicans could choose to target Durbin, Democrats say they might target Hastert's seat even if he decides to seek re-election to a 12th term — although many, including Rove, consider Hastert unbeatable — DCCC spokesman Rudominger said. So far, Hastert has not publicly declared his plans and is not expected to do so until summer.
Democratic and Republican strategists say the fate of some federal officeholders in Illinois could hinge on whether the state's popular freshman senator, Democrat Barack Obama, is at the top of the ballot as a candidate for president or vice president.
"If Barack Obama is candidate for president that's the ultimate wild card, especially in congressional races," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, the DuPage County GOP chairman. "The interest in turnout will heighten for both conservatives and more liberal interests, and it remains to be seen what would happen with the political middle and those who don't vote."
But perhaps the best strategy for candidates who hope to win is to get into the game early, said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"Those members of Congress who prepare early for competitive races tend to perform best on Election Day," Spain said. "It is highly encouraged for all members of Congress to prepare for potentially competitive races."