Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Illinois 14: More Bad News for the GOP

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Bill Foster's (D) victory in Illinois 14 was another dose of bad news for the Republican Party, but the national repercussions likely lie somewhere between the heavy spin coming from both Republicans and Democrats. The results don't spell the end of the GOP, but demonstrates a party that still has considerable problems. And for Republicans who thought the 2006 election was their electoral floor, there could be a basement.

Foster, a scientist and wealthy businessman, defeated wealthy businessman Jim Oberweis (R) 53%-47% in a race that included heavy spending by both the NRCC and DCCC. National Republicans didn't have the money to spare, but desperately needed an electoral victory to improve the morale of a caucus suffering from massive retirements and depressed fundraising. The NRCC's significant spending paid off in last year's special elections, but they were unable to pull Oberweis across the line on Saturday.

The fact that Illinois 14 used to be represented by House Speaker Dennis Hastert is worth little more than a Democratic talking point. But Republicans should still be concerned because it's the type of district that they will have to defend more of in November, and will be extremely difficult to win if they can't regain some support from moderates and independent voters.

Sure, Republicans had district-specific problems like Oberweis' high unfavorable ratings and a Saturday special election in a state where the Republican Party is as organized as a soccer game with six year olds, but they shouldn't use Oberweis' problems to mask the party's damaged brand.

It's also a stretch to claim Illinois 14 was a proxy battle between Barack Obama and John McCain, and a precursor to November. First, the Republican Party is still being defined by George W. Bush, and in that respect, Saturday's special election took place in the 2006 environment instead of the unknown and undefined 2008 environment. Foster would have likely won the race without the Obama television ad.

Secondly, the special election took place in Obama's living room, so it's difficult to compare and project future down-ballot results with races elsewhere around the country. Illinois Congs. Mark Kirk (R-10th C.D.) and Peter Roskam (R-6th C.D.) have some reason for concern, but they are incumbents and much better candidates than Oberweis.

Finally, the entire country isn't going Democrat, as evidenced by huge Republican special election victories in Ohio and Virginia last year. Of the five outstanding special elections this year, four are not expected to be particularly competitive (including two GOP open seats), but Louisiana 6 is a potential trouble spot for Republicans. Overall, Republicans still have significant problems outside the loyal base, and they will continue to struggle in districts that require a significant number of independent and moderate voters to win unless the party's image improves.

This item also appeared on Political Wire on March 9, 2008.