Sunday, March 09, 2008

2008 House Special Elections

The number of U.S. House vacancies and the necessity for special elections in this current Congress continue to be fairly numerous.

Way back on December 8, I ranked the 14th District of Illinois as "Likely Republican" and I am posting this now to say that I of course turned out to be wrong on that, as last night, the Democrats picked up a seat that has belonged to the GOP for decades and decades. I maybe should have posted a few days back that the race was going to be a tossup and that I actually expected the Republican candidate to wind up losing the special Saturday election, but when it comes to all these special elections, I am just posting a bunch of rankings or predictions if you will early on. Then, if I am wrong, as I am here, I will face up to it. As I did following the 2006, elections I am also going to do some brief ranting as to why exactly the GOP lost this seat. After that, I will list the upcoming special elections that have come about since I last visited this topic back in early December. Since then, the 1st District of Louisiana remains vacant, with yesterday's first round of special primary voting producing a Democrat nominee and two Republicans which will advance to a runoff. With a great deal of confidence, I do maintain that particular race is Safe Republican.

Now, on to what happened in IL 14, a district in which I spent much time in as a college student at Northern Illinois University, and where I was honored to first get to meet and campaign with Congressman Dennis Hastert back in 1996 and remember how proud we all were of him when he unexpectedly rose to become Speaker of the House just a little over two years later.

When Republicans lost their House majority in 2006, few expected Hastert, who by then had become the longest serving Republican Speaker in history to stick around much longer. After several months of speculation, he did finally announce that he would be retiring from Congress in the midst of his current term. There was maneuvering done on his part in an attempt to both deny the nomination to a Republican candidate with whom he had feuded and to have a special election scheduled on a date which would give the Republican candidate the best chance to win and to have a leg up for November. The first part of Hastert's plan certainly worked but the most important part failed miserably as Democrat Bill Foster defeated Republican Jim Oberweis in a result that once would have been extremely surprising to most political observers. Now, while nothing is guaranteed (keeping in mind that odd things often happen in special elections), the Democrats are in far better shape to hold this seat for two years after November's general election and the task of Republicans ultimately winning back a majority of the House of Representatives is that much more difficult.

When Hastert first announced his retirement, there was speculation about several strong Republicans who might run for the seat. However, many of them decided to take a pass and in a multi-candidate field, which would ultimately narrow to just two main competitors, conservative State Senator Chris Lauzen, whom Hastert disliked for a variety of reasons was running against wealthy businessman Jim Oberweis, a former Hastert protege who had fallen somewhat out of favor with the Speaker somewhere in his stretch of three statewide Republican primary defeats.

Nonetheless, Hastert was intent on preventing Lauzen from succeeding him and thus threw his support to Oberweis, who used his name recognition and personal money to comfortably outdistance Lauzen for both the special election and general election primaries. Lauzen who was also hurt in the campaign for a reputation of being somewhat odd and a loose cannon at times never came around to offering any support to Oberweis after their fairly bitter primary battle in February. Still, Oberweis was expected to actually win his first election over Democrat scientist Bill Foster, a political rookie with a somewhat awkward speaking style who won the special election primary, but interestingly enough only barely defeated another candidate in the general election primary on the same day. In fact, the runner up has recently announced plans to push for a recount for the right to be on the ballot in November.

So, the general election matchup between Oberweis and Foster was set and money and political support came in from across the country as Democrats realized that Oberweis' political history of losing as well as dislike that had been generated towards him from his previous runs could bring about the symbolism of seeing a GOP district, once held by the Speaker of the House change sides. It appeared that Foster was on the airwaves earlier and more often than Oberweis in the special election and in the final week, an ad that ran in heavy rotation featured a videotaped endorsement by Illinois Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama. Oberweis and the NRCC ran their ads too, mostly negative ones against Foster as it appeared the race would come down to the wire.

Republicans believed that they would have the edge in an unprecedented Saturday special election which was supposed to see low turnout, but the Democrats managed to win it by about seven points. Some will claim that this is a harbinger of a big Democrat year in Congressional races while others will point to the star power of Obama and the effect he could have on races in Illinois if he tops his party's ticket. I would say that this was far more of a repudiation of Oberweis personally and the campaign he ran this time as well as the campaigns he had run in the past rather than any sort of great ideological win for Democrats.

Still, it is worth pointing how how motivated Democrats were, both around the country, and within the district to try to get this seat from the Republicans, even if there was no great enthusiasm for Foster himself. Republicans, especially those in the district, just could never muster up the enthusiasm to work extremely hard for Foster. A good deal of Lauzen primary voters likely even voted for Foster yesterday and many others made the decision to stay at home.

It is not worth delving into the many reasons why Oberweis is such a poor candidate but he has just been unable thus far to shake his image of a rich egomaniac who will embark on negative tactics to attempt to win, and yet is always unable to ultimately succeed.

So, Republicans have lost another seat and Democrats are understandably gloating. I maintain though that while the DCCC and Obama certainly helped, and the fact that the Illinois Republican Party continues to be somewhat adrift played a part, these results can most be attributed to actions and decisions taken by Hastert, Lauzen, and Oberweis all. Ultimately though, the failure belongs to the candidate, who lost a race he clearly should have been able to win.

November is of course scheduled to see a rematch between now Congressman Foster and Oberweis, where Republicans believe a larger turnout of more regular voters, who will be casting ballots for John McCain and other GOP candidates might make things more promising, incumbency is expected to help Foster, either with or without Obama sharing the ticket as a Presidential candidate. The nature of the district is such that no Democrat is ever going to be truly safe.

The more races that Oberweis continues to lose only adds to his negative image and it should be expected for there to be calls from within the party for him to see the writing on the wall and relinquish his spot on the November ballot so that the party could replace him (either with GOP runner up Lauzen or an even stronger general election prospect). Oberweis is seen as being pretty stubborn though and it would take a whole lot of pushing to get him to step aside. So, Republicans might be left hoping that somehow, someway, he will finally "get it" in terms of running a strong campaign and making a positive connection with enough voters. Otherwise, Republicans in the district will have to wait until 2010.

A final note is that there has been some talk in the past few days that there may be some pretty damaging things in Foster's divorce records from about 12 years ago. Other Illinois candidates have been sunk by those type of revelations in recent years, and one Republican U.S. Senate nominee was even forced to quit the race for similar reasons. If these allegations about Foster were to pan out or to make it into the mainstream media, there could be more surprising twists and turns in this race. Now, that he will be an incumbent Congressman, Foster may even have more to lose if such a thing comes to pass.

Now to the other races which will occur over the next month or so:


2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (West)

12. vacant upon the death of Tom Lantos (D)- (Kerry 72%)- Safe D


2004 Presidential Result: Red State (Midwest)

7. vacant upon the death of Julia Carson (D)- (Kerry 58%)- Likely D


2004 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

6. vacant upon the resignation of Richard Baker (R)- (GWB 59%)- Leans R


2004 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

1. vacant upon the resignation of Roger Wicker (R)- (GWB 62%)- Safe R


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