By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008
The Democratic Party scored a major symbolic win last night when a soft-spoken Democratic physicist claimed the suburban Chicago seat held by the former Republican House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, for nearly 21 years.
Democrat Bill Foster took 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Republican dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, in a district that President Bush won in 2004 with 55 percent. The Democratic victory in what was once a safe Republican seat gave the clearest sign yet that the anti-GOP wave that swept Republicans from control of Congress in 2006 may still be rolling.
"A victory in the seat held by Speaker Hastert will send a political shock wave that will be felt across the country," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's a stunning repudiation of President Bush, his allies and John McCain, who wants to carry on his legacy."
In recent weeks, the fight between Foster and Oberweis had become a proxy war for the larger contests in November. Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama, who hails from Chicago, made an advertisement for Foster, while presumptive Republican nominee McCain came to the district to raise money for Oberweis.
Sensing a chance to seize a highly symbolic victory: the seat of the longest-serving Republican speaker in history, the DCCC pumped more than $1 million into the race, with advertising, automated calling and a get-out-the-vote drive. The cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee was forced to follow suit, spending nearly $1.3 million, or 20 percent of its cash on hand, to try to save what should have been an easy seat.
Karen Hanretty, an NRCC spokeswoman, cautioned not to read too much into one House victory in a volatile political year. The Democrats had their own scare last year when Democrat Niki Tsongas narrowly won a Massachusetts special election to fill a House seat long held by her party.
"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. The one message coming out of 2008 so far is that what happens today is not a bellwether of what happens this fall," Hanretty said.
But Van Hollen was having none of it.
"A Democrat was outspent in a heavily Republican district held by the former speaker of the House for 20 years and carried easily by George Bush," he said. "There's no way putting perfume on this one."
Both parties had said the outcome would be decided by which turned out the vote on a cold Saturday. Illinois election officials were not expecting many voters to show up, but by late afternoon, John A. "Jack" Cunningham, clerk of Kane County, Ill., expressed surprised satisfaction. He had expected 38,000 to 45,000 of the county's 212,913 registered voters to show, but by 6 p.m., 47,257 ballots had been cast.
"For a two-man race, that's somewhat extraordinary," he said.
Foster's win is striking evidence that Republicans continue to face a difficult political environment. On Tuesday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report switched its prognosis from Oberweis to a tossup.
"The district's Republican lean is Oberweis's last potential saving grace. But the Saturday special election, unusual by Illinois standards, makes voter engagement and enthusiasm all the more critical and Foster could well reap the benefits of the wide enthusiasm gap Democrats seem to be enjoying nationally," wrote David Wasserman, the report's House race editor. The Cook Political Report last week listed 10 Republican House seats as tossups, from Arizona to the Washington suburbs of Virginia. The Democrats have just one: a remarkable disparity considering political tides like the Democrats' resurgence in 2006 usually produce seats that are easily retaken the next election cycle.
Republican campaign officials quietly blamed Oberweis more than the political environment. The dairy farm owner has run unsuccessfully for political posts in Illinois and has encountered problems with his sometimes abrasive personality. Last week, Chicago's NBC affiliate, WMAQ-TV, aired off-camera footage of Oberweis apparently mocking Foster's sometimes halting speech.
Foster, who spent 22 years at the Department of Energy's Fermilab in suburban Chicago, drew the support of Net roots, liberal Web sites that poured money into the race.