Race for Hastert's Seat Is Unexpectedly Close

By Ben Pershing
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2008

In a race that has become surprisingly close, voters will decide today whether a Republican dairy magnate or a Democratic scientist will fill out the remainder of former Republican House speaker J. Dennis Hastert's term in Illinois' 14th District.

Democrat Bill Foster and Republican Jim Oberweis are virtually deadlocked in what should be a solidly Republican district in the northern Illinois exurbs, according to polls and political observers.

In the past few days, two independent political handicappers, Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg, each have reassessed the contest as a toss-up instead of one that leans in favor of Oberweis. At least one poll has shown Foster with a slim lead in the final days of the campaign.

Democrats are salivating over the possibility of picking up not just a Republican-held district but the one that had been the official seat of House GOP power for the eight years before Democrats' takeover in 2006.

"Obviously, it would have huge symbolic significance," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "A Democratic win in this district would send a political shock wave through the systems."

Because of that, the race has drawn heavy spending from Washington. Through Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee had spent more than $1.2 million on the race, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. The Democratic committee had spent just over $1 million, with the largest chunk going for $346,000 worth of advertising on Monday.

Foster, a physicist and businessman, and Oberweis, who heads a large dairy company, have eagerly sought the help of their parties' presidential candidates. On Tuesday, Foster released a new ad featuring Illinois favorite son Barack Obama.

"You may think you have to wait until November to vote for change, but here in Illinois you can start Saturday, March 8," the senator says in the spot, adding that he has endorsed Foster "because he represents the change we need."

For Obama, the race is a chance to burnish his image as someone who can help Democrats win, even in red districts.

The Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), has not made any ads, but he headlined a Feb. 20 fundraiser for Oberweis in Sugar Grove, Ill., that netted more than $250,000. In an appearance that day with McCain at Aurora Municipal Airport, Oberweis sought to link his opponent to the Democratic presidential candidates.

"Whether the name is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Bill Foster, the Democrats' agenda is clear: bigger government; higher taxes; more power flowing to Washington; raising the white flag and immediate withdrawal from Iraq; a big-government takeover of health care; amnesty and government benefits for 10 million illegal immigrants," Oberweis said.

More than McCain, the Republican notable who has something to lose in this contest is Hastert. The former speaker took a risk by resigning last year rather than serving out the 110th Congress, prompting an unpredictable and expensive special election.

Hastert also gambled by throwing the full weight of his endorsement and his political operation behind Oberweis during the GOP primary. Though Oberweis has run and lost multiple campaigns before, Hastert preferred him to state Sen. Chris Lauzen (R), with whom Hastert has a long-running feud. If Oberweis flames out, some Republicans may wonder whether Hastert backed the wrong horse.

"McCain is fine, but the guy who can motivate people is Denny Hastert," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "What an embarrassment for him if Foster wins. He has a lot at stake."

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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