Dem Victory Exposes GOP Weakness

Was Democrat Bill Foster’s victory in the race for Dennis Hastert’s old House seat Saturday a harbinger of things to come — a swing to the Democrats in the exurbs, a triumph of Democratic arguments on the economy and Iraq, an embrace of “change” and Barack Obama — or merely the inevitable result of the Republicans’ running a candidate who never had a chance in the first place?

It depends on who’s doing the spinning.

Foster’s campaign manager and Democrats say they’re encouraged that Foster’s focus on the Iraq war and the economy played to their benefit, and they believe that tying Republican candidates to President Bush’s policies can still be effective in 2008. The Democrats are optimistic that, if they can win a solidly Republican seat of the former Republican House speaker, they are in a strong position to expand their congressional majorities in the fall.

Republicans blame the loss on a poor campaign from their nominee, dairy owner Jim Oberweis, who had previously lost three consecutive statewide campaigns and emerged from a highly negative and contentious primary. 

 “People don’t like Jim Oberweis. That’s pretty clear. Our turnout was there. You have a flawed candidate on your hands,” said an Illinois Republican operative. “Our folks went to the polls, and they just didn’t vote for him.”

Hastert’s home base of Kendall County, Ill., was once evidence of an emerging Republican majority. Voters seeking escape from the cities and older suburbs flocked to fast-growing exurbs like Kendall County — located about 50 miles outside Chicago — and these outer reaches of metropolitan areas have become linchpins of Republican success.

President Bush carried the county by 22 points in 2004 and, more broadly, carried the 100 fastest-growing counties nationwide by a 16-point margin.

But Foster’s upset victory in Saturday’s special election entirely upended the area’s traditional voting patterns. Not only did the low-key political novice win in Hastert’s old seat, but he also carried counties long written off as unwinnable in the base of the Republican heartland. And he did it while running on, rather than from, traditional Democratic issues.

Oberweis attempted to caricature Foster as a pawn of left-wing Democrats and accused him in his advertising of being a tax-and-spend liberal. Foster, for his part, didn’t run away from his party’s national positions during the campaign, opposing the administration’s Iraq policy and focusing on the troubled economy.

“The one thing that was a constant in everything we did was that Oberweis agreed with President Bush on everything,” said Foster’s campaign manager, Tom Bowen. “And we drove it home on all the issues: Iraq, [the State Children’s Health Insurance Program] and the economy.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a mailer accusing Oberweis of wanting to “strip 1.3 million Illinois children of their health care” — a shot at Oberweis’ opposition to an expansion of SCHIP — and the Foster campaign sent out five mail pieces attacking Oberweis on health care. In an interview, Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, cited the SCHIP attacks as having an effect on the race and suggested that they could be part of an emerging campaign theme for Democratic candidates across the country.

Republican operatives disputed the notion that the special election served as a referendum on the Democrats’ legislative agenda.

“This was the first Saturday congressional election in Illinois history, and as a result, voter turnout was low and unpredictable,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain. “We look forward to competing for the seat i the fall.”

Foster and Oberweis will again face each other in the November general election, and turnout won’t be an issue then — particularly if Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is on the ballot as the Democrats’ presidential nominee.

Obama cut an ad that aired in the campaign’s final week, arguing that Foster “represents the change we need.” Bowen said it was a key to Foster’s victory.

“The senator has a unique ability to break through and talk to the electorate,” said Bowen. “He lends credibility to Bill’s message of trying to solve problems. When they heard Obama say, ‘Bill Foster’s going to change things,’ they believed him.”

Illinois is one of the key congressional battlegrounds in 2008, with both parties closely eyeing five of the state’s 19 House seats as possible pickup opportunities.

In light of Foster’s victory, Democrats are also optimistic that they may be able to pick up another Republican-leaning seat in a Baton Rouge-area special election to succeed Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) in May.

The likely Republican nominee for Baker’s seat is newspaper publisher Woody Jenkins, who finished several hundred votes short of avoiding a runoff in Saturday’s special election primary.

Jenkins lost a high-profile statewide race to Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) in 1996. In an advertisement, one of his Republican primary opponents accused him of a business relationship with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a charge that Jenkins has vigorously denied.

Like Oberweis, Republicans are privately concerned about his electability in a general election, particularly given the negative primary campaign.

And like in Hastert’s district, Democrats are optimistic that the demographics are trending in their favor.

The district’s base of Baton Rouge has seen an influx of African-Americans displaced from Hurricane Katrina.

One Republican operative said the lesson learned from Oberweis’ loss is that candidates have to distance themselves from Washington to win in this political environment.

“This is going to be a change election. And Republicans have to know they’re going to have to run as agents of change,” said the GOP operative. “Oberweis was effectively cast as the incumbent. People knew him; he was a known entity. And he never mentioned change once.”