In already difficult year, loss of IL-14 rattles House GOP

Eight months from a general election that is looking increasingly difficult for the House GOP, Democrats scored a major coup last night by picking-up IL-14 -- the seat of former speaker Dennis Hastert -- in a special election. With all votes counted, Bill Foster beat Republican Jim Oberweis 53% to 47%, in a traditionally red district that George Bush won win 55% in 2004.

A few months ago, Democrats made a similar push in OH-05, a red district where they thought they had a chance, but the GOP candidate ended up winning convincingly. Yesterday, Democrats exacted revenge and their victory will reverberate in the coming weeks, as operatives from both parties try to figure out what it means for November's election.

House control: The first consequence is obvious -- but it has to be said: Democrats have increased their majority by one vote. That means that Republicans will have to pick up one more seat in November if they want to regain control of the House -- a scenario that is looking increasingly unlikely with every passing week. However you spin it, it is difficult to find scenarios in which Republicans get close to picking up 17 seats -- without even accounting for the gains that Democrats are sure to score in many GOP-held seats.

A harbinger of things to come?: The temptation is strong to read IL-14's result as a sign that Democrats are headed for a strong year. If they are running so far ahead of the district's political make-up, the thinking goes, we could witness another blue wave on November 4th. But this has to be qualified for a number of reasons. For one, special election pick-ups do not necessarily serve as a good predictor of the November elections. In 2004, Democrats picked up two very difficult seats (SD-AL and KY-04) but the party had a weak showing come the general election. Second, Oberweis was a weak candidate that has already lost a string of elections and that attracted criticism by editorials like the Chicago Tribune's traditionally favorable to Republicans. Third, the low turnout of a special election might have helped Democrats, whereas Republicans will be more mobilized in red-leaning districts in November since there also is a Republican year. That said, yesterday's special election foreshadows two huge problems the GOP will suffer from in the coming months: Their open seat headaches and their fundraising woes.

The GOP's open seat problem: If nothing else, yesterday's election confirmed that the Republicans are facing an open seat nightmare. As is characteristic in the cycle after a party loses the majority, many Republicans have announced that they are not running for re-election next year , and a very high number hails from swing districts. In a year where the Republicans were hoping to put most of the 31 freshmen Democrats that pick-ed up GOP seats in 2006 on the defensive, it is Democrats who are facing dozens of opportunities that pretty much just sprang up by themselves. And this is the problem with open seats: They not only appear as likely take-overs in areas that are trending blue (VA-11, IL-11, NM-1, NJ-07...) but they also provide an opportunity to seize seats that would never have been in play otherwise.

IL-14 is a perfect example of that: It hadn't been remotely competitive in more than 20 years, but it opening up allowed Democrats to force Republican hands and test the GOP strength's, and they came away with an extra seat. There are sure to implement the same strategy in many of the open seats that are also supposed to be reliably Republican, places like MO-09, KY-02, IL-18 and even NM-02.

Republican funding woes: The second major issue Republicans are facing is fundraising. The DCCC has a massive cash-on-hand advantage, and it will use its money to put marginally Republican seats in play and test GOP resistance. In IL-14 already (following a scenario that played out in OH-05), the NRCC was forced to spend more than $1 million defending what should have been a safe seat, which represents about 20% of its total cash-on-hand. Republicans will not have the money to do the same in the fall. If Democrats go all out in unexpected districts (like IL-14) across the country, Republicans will be able to defend a few of those but will have to leave many incumbents to their own fate. And considering that NRCC help could not save Oberweis yesterday consider how much more dramatic the results could be in districts where the DCCC can play without the NRCC's response.

The future of IL-14: Foster was only elected to fill the remainder of Hastert's term, and Oberweis and Foster will face each other once more in November. The seat will most certainly
stay competitive, and Republicans have hope of reclaiming the district -- especially since the turnout will be higher, which should help the GOP in a presidential year. However, Foster starts off his first re-election campaign with a very significant edge. It is very rare for a candidate elected in a special election to lose a few months later: In 2004, Herseth in SD-AL and Chandler in KY-04 won rematches in November very comfortably; the same in 2006 in CA-50, for Republicans. Electors do not tend to change their mind that rapidly, and the Democrats will do everything to bolster Foster's incumbency claim in the coming months, not to mention that the NRCC will not have the money in November to contest this district the way it did in the past few weeks.

The impact on the presidential race: Obama and McCain were both involved in this election. The former had cut an ad for the Democrat, while the latter campaigned with Oberweis. Foster's election will allow Obama to make the case that he has significant coattails and that he can help Democrats strengthen their congressional majorities. Naturally, IL-14 was in Obama's home-state, which forces us to qualify any such argument Obama might make. But there is a concrete benefit for Obama out of yesterday's election: Foster now becomes a superdelegate, and will almost certainly vote for Barack Obama at the Denver convention.



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