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Republicans See Storm Clouds Gathering

Bill Foster, right, is congratulated by Nobel Prize Winner and former Fermilab Director Leon Lederman, center, and Sen. Dick Durbin, left, at a party celebrating his victory over Jim Oberweis Saturday March 8, 2008. A longtime Republican district fell to the Democrats Saturday when Bill Foster, a wealthy businessman and scientist snatched former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's congressional seat in a closely watched special election.
Bill Foster, right, is congratulated by Nobel Prize Winner and former Fermilab Director Leon Lederman, center, and Sen. Dick Durbin, left, at a party celebrating his victory over Jim Oberweis Saturday March 8, 2008. A longtime Republican district fell to the Democrats Saturday when Bill Foster, a wealthy businessman and scientist snatched former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's congressional seat in a closely watched special election. (Marianne Mather - AP)

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

While all eyes were on the presidential campaign and the demise of New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D) last week, Republicans on Capitol Hill were suffering a run of bad news that could hold dire implications for the campaign season.

It started with the loss last weekend of the seat held for two decades by former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). It got worse when Republicans lost potentially strong challengers to Democratic senators in South Dakota and New Jersey, and failed to field anyone to oppose the reelection bid of Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

The latest blow came with the revelation that the former treasurer of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) had allegedly diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and possibly as much as $1 million -- from the organization's depleted coffers to his own bank accounts.

If Republicans needed any more evidence of how difficult this fall may be, the past week had it all, analysts said. The Illinois race demonstrated new levels of disaffection, the party's efforts to go on offense elsewhere were thwarted by recruiting failures, and the NRCC scandal will divert campaign resources and could frighten off badly needed contributors, they said.

"It's no mystery," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). "You have a very unhappy electorate, which is no surprise, with oil at $108 a barrel, stocks down a few thousand points, a war in Iraq with no end in sight and a president who is still very, very unpopular. He's just killed the Republican brand."

Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst of congressional politics, said: "The math is against them. The environment is against them. The money is against them. This is one of those cycles that if you're a Republican strategist, you just want to go into the bomb shelter."

The loss of Hastert's seat in a special election in the far suburbs of Chicago was particularly painful, Republicans conceded. GOP campaign aides contended that the victory of Democratic physicist Bill Foster, a political neophyte, was more a reflection of the unpopularity of his Republican opponent, Jim Oberweis, than a tectonic political shift in a district that once exemplified the GOP's stranglehold on the nation's outer-ring suburbs.

But that's not how Foster sees it. Voters "had a pretty clean choice between a candidate who had aligned himself with George Bush's policies and one who felt we needed a change of course," he said.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain (Ariz.) helped Oberweis raise money, and the NRCC pumped more than $1.2 million into the district -- using more than 20 percent of its cash on hand -- to no avail.

"Even if it was mostly about Jim Oberweis, it's a terrible sign," Rothenberg said. "It adds to Democratic energy and further depresses the Republicans. And you can't dismiss the idea that there is an atmospheric advantage for the Democrats."

Two days after the Illinois election, South Dakota's former lieutenant governor, Steve Kirby, announced he will not challenge Sen. Tim Johnson, one of the few Democratic senators seeking reelection in a swing state.

On the same day, Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Dennis Milligan said his party has no candidate to challenge Pryor, another swing-state Democrat, and in Minnesota, wealthy trial lawyer Michael Ciresi dropped out of the Democratic primary. That cleared the way for comedian Al Franken, the remaining Democratic candidate, to spend the next eight months focusing on Sen. Norm Coleman (R).


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