Illinois GOP Finds an Anti-Schock to Replace Aaron Schock

Darin LaHood's family is steeped in politics, and he championed ethics reform in the state legislature. But some conservatives are wary of him.

Aaron Schock interviewed in his office on Arpil 26, 2012. (National Journal)

Illinois Republicans may elect a media-shy, ethics-focused political scion as their newest representative later this year—in other words, the antithesis of resigning Rep. Aaron Schock, the man being replaced. But conservatives aren't all sold on state Sen. Darin LaHood, either, partly because of his family's political history.

LaHood, whose father represented Illinois's 18th District for more than two decades, has emerged as the early favorite to take over from Schock after his ostentatious spending habits brought the congressman down. LaHood could scare off all other serious contenders because in many ways, he looks like a perfect fit for a post-scandal special election.

Start with his family pedigree. Former Rep. Ray LaHood, who served as President Obama's first Transportation secretary, represented the Peoria-based district in understated fashion for more than a decade, a sharp contrast to the jet-setting, big-spending lifestyle Schock showcased on Instagram. Before Schock even announced he would resign, Peoria's Journal Star editorial board noted that "these ethical questions never came up with" his predecessor.

Then there's LaHood the younger's fortuitous focus on ethics reform in the state legislature. LaHood didn't have much success, but it puts him in a perfect position to draw a contrast with Schock, said state Sen. Jason Barickman, a Republican colleague who considered but decided against a bid for Schock's seat.

"He's been outspoken in calling for those reforms," Barickman said. "This is an issue that potentially could distinguish Darin from other candidates."

But LaHood's familial and political legacy has a downside, too, which libertarian-leaning GOP political operative Mike Flynn said should come up during the campaign.

Although Darin LaHood has established a relatively conservative record in the state Senate, his father was a consistent moderate. He was one of only three Republicans to refuse to sign then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract with America when he first ran for office in 1994, and at the end of his time in the House, before he joined President Obama's Cabinet, the Club for Growth's scorecard gave Ray LaHood a lifetime score of 36 percent.

Flynn, who is considering running for against Darin LaHood, also noted that his status as the son of a lawmaker and bureaucrat might not sit well with voters who saw Schock grow out of touch and who want a more down-to-Earth replacement.

"His father was a chief of staff in Congress forever, and then was in Congress forever," Flynn said. "It's like they live in the political world without any connection to the real world."

LaHood's office declined to set up an interview and did not respond to questions on what his father's legacy would mean in the race. Spokeswoman Karen Disharoon defended his legislative record in an emailed statement.

LaHood "is dominating the polls because conservatives are energized for him because he fights for term limits, cutting government spending, and lower taxes," she said. "As a former federal prosecutor, he's uniquely positioned to crack down on the D.C. special interests and lead the charge for ethics reforms and transparency."

And even potential opponents admit LaHood's strengths. Flynn said he's definitely a safer option than Schock. "He is much more "¦ what you envision of a politician," Flynn said.

"He does have high name recognition. He has a lot of points in his favor," said state Rep. Dan Brady, another potential candidate. Brady volunteered for Ray LaHood's campaign in the 1990s.

But LaHood's government legacy will be a target in the special election. Attorney Mike Zalcman, a GOP candidate who waged an unsuccessful state House campaign in 2014 and is a long shot to make an impact on the congressional race, said he plans on focusing his campaign on criticizing LaHood's privileged position in the party hierarchy.

"The red carpet's certainly been rolled out for him," Zalcman said.