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House GOP Funk Worsens

For National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.), every week seems to bring a new set of problems. On Saturday night, things got even worse.

With Democrat Bill Foster’s victory in the Illinois 14th District special election, Democrats now hold the seats occupied only 21 months ago by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — the two GOP lawmakers who ran the House from 1998 to 2006.

Since September, Cole has faced a barrage of bad news: 

—The NRCC lags behind the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee by nearly $30 million in cash on hand; 

—GOP House leadership endured an embarrassing scuffle when Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried to fire Cole’s top two staffers, during which Cole threatened to resign;

—There been a wave of retirements by veteran Republican lawmakers that will force the NRCC to defend what were once seen as safe GOP seats;

—Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) was indicted on 35 federal corruption charges, which puts another Republican-controlled district in play;

—And the FBI continues its criminal investigation into a brewing accounting scandal that centers on the former NRCC treasurer’s activities.

But the GOP’s defeat in Illinois’ special election Saturday may even trump those setbacks, at least in the short term. Cole and the House Republican leadership are blaming the loss directly on GOP candidate Jim Oberweis. A dairy owner who lost three consecutive statewide elections before Saturday, Oberweis has a long history of political baggage. He won the recent nomination without receiving the support of his Republican primary rival, state Sen. Chris Lauzen.

“By itself, this would not be that big of a deal, but coupled with everything else it will just deflate the [House Republican] Conference,” said an aide to one top GOP lawmaker. “And symbolically, losing Hastert’s seat is like the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad for Republicans.”

Cole and the NRCC are desperately spinning Oberweis’ defeat as an isolated incident that is not endemic of further GOP losses in the fall. NRCC Communications Director Karen Hanretty, new to panel after the previous spokeswoman resigned last month, said, “The one thing 2008 has shown is that one election in one state does not prove a trend. In fact, there has been no national trend this entire election season.”

Democrats, however, note the NRCC spent $1.2 million during the campaign, one-fifth of it total cash hoard, in backing Oberweis’ ultimate defeat. That comes on top of the $2 million-plus that Oberweis spent from his own pocket during the race. The DCCC spent more than $1 million running ads against Oberweis.

Democrats also point out that Hastert never took less than 64 percent in the solidly Republican district, carried handily by President Bush in both 2000 and 2004.

Even better from Democrats’ perspective, the efforts on behalf of Oberweis by Hastert, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), their presumptive 2008 presidential nominee, were not enough to stave off Oberweis’ loss. All three Republican leaders had campaigned for Oberweis in recent weeks, with McCain attending a fundraiser for him last month that raised nearly $257,000.

House Republicans already faced a daunting political landscape as Election Day grows closer. Twenty-eight House Republicans have announced their retirements or have resigned this election cycle – and nearly half of those represent highly-competitive districts.

Republicans are also privately pessimistic about retaining Democratic-trending suburban seats held by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), James Walsh (R-N.Y.), and they presently lack a nominee for the open seat of retiring Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.)

In addition, Republicans haven’t been able t field credible recruits against freshman Democratic Reps. John Hall of New York, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Zack Space of Ohio — all of whom represent traditionally GOP districts that the party lost in the 2006 wave election.

On top of that, the DCCC maintains a huge fundraising advantage over its GOP counterpart, ending January with $35.4 million in cash, while the NRCC banked $6.4 million. That financial muscle will allow the Democrats to pour money into swing districts, giving the party a chance to further pad its House majority.

Yet the situation isn’t entirely hopeless for Cole and the Republicans. They’ve successfully recruited some strong candidates in tough districts, including in the open seats of Reps. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) and Heather Wilson (R-N.M.). After a lackluster start, the NRCC’s fundraising has stabilized as well, with the GOP committee even narrowly out-raising the DCCC in January. An upcoming House Republican dinner with President Bush should net the NRCC at least $6 million.

Also, with McCain presumably at the top of the Republican presidential ticket, the party has a chance to compete among independent voters in the Southwest, and he could help Republicans contest two Democratic-held seats in Arizona.

But the small bits of good news threaten to be overwhelmed by Oberweis’ embarrassing loss. Even the most pessimistic Republicans didn’t expect such a crushing defeat: he lost all but three counties, including Hastert’s heavily Republican home base of Kendall County.

Republicans say there’s no way that Boehner can get rid of Cole, despite grumbling about the Oklahoma Republican throughout GOP leadership ranks. “We’re just going to have to work that much harder,” said a senior Republican staffer on Sunday morning.

They also hope that they can unseat Foster, a physicist, in November, when he goes before voters seeking a full term. “In a year where change seems to be the big theme in politics, we’re pretty content with the knowledge that over the next six months Foster will actually have a voting record in a Nancy Pelosi Congress,” said one top GOP staffer.

But Foster’s surprise win, in his first run for office, gave Democrats plenty to crow about, and it could further aid their already impressive fundraising advantage as K Street and Corporate America look to jump on the winning bandwagon for November.

Foster’s victory “sends a political shock wave across America this election year,” said DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) in a statement released after the results were announced Saturday night. A DCCC memo pointed out that “80 percent of the Republican open and Republican incumbent seats the DCCC is targeting this cycle have better democratic performances than Illinois 14. Forty out of the 50 seats the DCCC is targeting have Democratic performances of 45 percent or higher.”