PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — The son of former White House cabinet member Ray LaHood emerged as the leading contender Wednesday to replace U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, as two other potential candidates abandoned thoughts of seeking the seat that is coming open after a spending scandal forced the Illinois congressman's abrupt resignation.
State Sen. Darin LaHood, whose father held the central Illinois seat before Schock and then served as President Barack Obama's transportation secretary, announced that he would seek the seat Wednesday morning during an appearance on a radio show in Peoria, where his family has resided for decades.
"This is an opportunity that doesn't come around very often," LaHood said, saying he had received "a lot of encouragement" to make a bid for the post in the hours that followed Schock's announcement Tuesday.
LaHood said he plans to campaign on his record as a former state and federal prosecutor, and on his record as a fiscal conservative who advocated for ethics reform. He told the Associated Press he considers himself more conservative than his father.
"We tend to disagree sometimes," he said. "I've got a conservative voting record here, a strong record in the senate, so I'll stand on that."
Two other GOP state senators — Jason Barickman and Bill Brady — were considering bids, but both said they had decided against running in a special election that Gov. Bruce Rauner will call after Schock leaves office March 31. It must be held within 120 days, meaning voters will select a replacement by the end of July.
The 18th District, which encompasses 19 counties, is predominantly Republican. A number of Republican officials moved quickly to support LaHood's candidacy. Former Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady said officials likely will be looking for someone who carries a different image than Schock as the district tries to rebound.
"I think Darin does fit that bill," Brady said. "He's thoughtful, appeals to people on both sides and within the Republican party and has a great name. The district needs most to get this over with quickly and have someone who's widely respected."
Local Democrats, meanwhile, said they were still discussing possible candidates. Jackie Petty, vice chairman of the Peoria County Democratic Party, conceded it would be difficult to beat a strong Republican candidate.
Schock's departure, fast and hard even by Washington's standards, was still resonating Wednesday for the area's politicians and Schock's constituents.
Already in his fourth term in Congress at age 33, Schock was the rare media-savvy GOP millennial on Capitol Hill, attracting fans on Instagram, posing bare-chested on the cover of Men's Health magazine, and leveraging his national profile to become a prodigious fundraiser for fellow Republicans. Energetic and ambitious, Schock made it into the lower rungs of House leadership last summer as a senior deputy whip.
But along the way Schock accepted rides on donors' private planes without properly reporting them, made improbably lucrative real estate deals with political supporters, and spent $40,000 in taxpayer money to decorate his office in the style of "Downton Abbey" — money he paid back after the expenditures came under question.
On Tuesday, with no warning to House leaders, Schock announced that he would resign, leaving political life as dramatically as he'd entered it as a 19-year-old write-in candidate for the Peoria School Board.
Schock said "the constant questions over the last six weeks have proven a great distraction that has made it too difficult for me to serve the people of the 18th District with the high standards that they deserve."
On Wednesday, Schock's father defended him against what he called "malicious" media reports.
"The investigative reporting and stuff that's been out there is absolutely ridiculous," said Richard Schock, a doctor, outside his home in Peoria. "It's not only unfair, it's untrue. If you're going to investigate his real estate dealings, etc., then find out the facts. The facts are what is going to convict him or exonerate him."
Earlier, the elder Schock told ABC's Chicago affiliate his son was sure to be successful going forward, "if he's not in jail." He told the AP his son was upset with him for having spoken to the media.
The two other potential GOP contenders for Schock's seat said they dropped out largely to focus on the state's big financial problems.
Bill Brady, a veteran state senator from Bloomington who lost a bid for governor in 2010, said Wednesday that he would not run, citing his business interests and a wish to keep helping "resolve the many fiscal challenges Illinois faces."
Barickman, also of Bloomington, announced soon after LaHood's announcement that he intended to stay in the General Assembly, citing the "needs of my young family and the desperate fiscal situation in Illinois state government."
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Stephen Braun in Washington and John O'Connor in Springfield, Illinois, contributed to this report.