by Jim Tankersley
Democrats in Illinois and Washington are celebrating today, after scientist/businessman Bill Foster beat Republican dairyman Jim Oberweis in yesterday's special election to replace retired Rep. Dennis Hastert, the former Republican Speaker of the House. And with good reason.
Republicans have cautioned against reading too much into the results and their implications for the fall elections. History, indeed, shows special elections sometimes foreshadow general-election trends and sometimes do not. But there are several reasons why this appears to be more than a typical pick-up of a House seat for Democrats - and why Republicans should worry in the coming months. Consider:
* This was not a "normal" seat in Congress. This was the home of the congressman who, until the GOP lost control of the chamber in the 2006 elections, was the most powerful man in the House. Oberweis was the candidate he backed to replace him. As psychological victories go for a party, this is on par with Republicans knocking off former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004.
* Oberweis' loss will fan fears that Illinois demographics are trending away from Republicans. When Melissa Bean beat GOP Rep. Phil Crane in the suburban 8th Congressional District in 2004, Republicans called it a fluke. Then she won re-election, and now she has another suburban/exurban Democrat joining her in Congress. Other Republicans in similar seats outside of Chicago - including Reps. Mark Kirk and Peter Roskam - are surely taking notice of that trend.
* This was a loss Republicans couldn't afford. Literally. Democrats ended January with more than a five-to-one advantage over Republicans in cash available to help their House candidates nationwide. Several reports estimated the National Republican Congressional Committee dumped at least a sixth of its available funds into the Illinois special election - and it still lost. The question now: Will the NRCC have enough money come fall to help Kirk and other incumbents targeted by the Democrats? Will it have any left over to play heavily in open seats such as the 11th CD of Illinois, which is being vacated by GOP Rep. Jerry Weller, or the 18th CD being vacated by GOP Rep. Ray LaHood? And will it have any cash at all to target the wave of Democratic freshmen who won election in 2006, in the year when they are least entrenched (and most vulnerable)?
* Special elections, especially those on Saturdays, are often seen as thermometers of party interest - the most revved-up base usually carries the day. At least one leading Democrat thought that would work to Republicans' favor in the Foster/Oberweis race; that, despite polls showing a dead heat, the GOP would turn out its base and Oberweis would win comfortably. The opposite happened, which only adds to the growing body of evidence from the presidential primaries that Democrats are the more energized party this year.
* Supporters of Sen. Barack Obama are already arguing that we've seen the first sign of an "Obama effect" that could ripple down ballots nationwide this fall if he is the Democratic nominee. The Oberweis/Foster battle was to some extent a proxy fight between Obama and GOP nominee-in-waiting John McCain, who each dropped in to help their respective party candidates. Obama supporters contend his boost was greater, particularly in rallying that base we were just talking about.
With all that said, we offer two glimmers of hope for Republicans from these results. The first is they get a re-match in the November election - and this time, Oberweis will be able to paint Foster as "part of the problem" in Washington, even if he's only been on the job a little while.
The second is more global. Part of Oberweis' problem rallying the Republican base in the special election may have been a hangover from his high-pitched primary fight with State Sen. Chris Lauzen. Republicans can only hope that whoever wins the Democratic presidential tussle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton will have the same problem uniting his or her base in the fall.