Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rumblings in the hinterlands of Illinois

If this was March 2006 - as opposed to March 2008, which is dominated by an historic presidential race, and (fleetingly) by the rise and fall of "Client 9" - we would be fairly transfixed by what occurred last Saturday night in a reliably Republican congressional district that extends westward from the outskirts of Chicago.

This is the district where ex-House Speaker Dennis Hastert reigned for more than two decades; where other Republican congressmen reigned before him; and where George W. Bush posted solid victories in 2000 and 2004. This district is home to the town of Dixon, where Ronald Reagan grew up. This district includes rural stretches that political analyst Michael Barone has called "traditionally some of the most heavily Republican territory in the country."

Yet, in a special House election on Saturday night, made necessary because of Hastert's recent resignation, this district chose a Democrat. A Democrat who had never run for office before. A Democrat who wound up winning even Hastert's home county, on the way to a six-point victory, 53 to 47 percent.

Some desperate Republican spinners have tried to insist that Bill Foster's victory over Republican Jim Oberweis was some kind of aberration, triggered perhaps by Oberweis' unlikeability (he had run unsuccessfully for statewide office three times in the past). Nice try. This is a district where, in a normal year, any Republican candidate with functioning brain cells can get elected to Congress. Hastert, in all his races, typically drew 65 percent of the vote or better. Plus, Oberweis spent $2 million of his own money (he's a dairy magnate), and got another $1.2 million from the National Republican Campaign Committee (the GOP's strategy arm) in Washington. Plus, Hastert stumped for him. So did a current House leader, Roy Blunt. And so did a guy who supposedly would have extra sway with the reliably Republican voters, John McCain.

And Oberweis still lost by a healthy margin. This tells us something important. A high-ranking Republican aide reportedly tells Politico that, as far as the GOP is concerned, "symbolically, losing Hastert's seat is like the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad." I doubt that Hastert would welcome such a crude metaphor, but we get the gist. There's no way to shrug this one off.

This event needs to be put in context, one that only ratifies its significance. House Republicans, sensing that 2008 will be a repeat of the 2006 debacle, are bailing out of the chamber this year in heavy numbers (roughly 14 percent of the current GOP roster); choosing "retirement," they fear precisely the kind of result that occurred in Hastert's old bailwick.

These departures will make life even tougher for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which now has to defend a lot more seats - at a time when it's seriously strapped for cash, thanks to the reluctance of donors to ante up in a bad political environment. The NRCC in January reported having about $6.4 million in the bank; its Democratic counterpart had $35.4 million. Traditionally, or at least before President Bush wrecked the party, House Republicans were always far better financed than the House Democrats.

Worse yet, the sleaze factor, which was strong in 2006, is still lingering. One of the incumbents, whom the party will be compelled to defend, is Arizona congressman Rick Renzi, who sees no problem in pursuing his re-election bid despite the fact that he is currently under indictment on 35 federal corruption charges.

And as for the NRCC itself, the party's campaign arm recently discovered that a fair chunk of its money - reportedly, in the six figures - had gone mysteriously missing, and that its financial records may have been falsified repeatedly over the past few years. Apparently, its newly-departed treasurer is the focus of an FBI criminal investigation. (This is another story that would have drawn more public attention in a normal year.) I am tempted to make a joke about the GOP's so-called reputation for fiscal responsibility, but, instead, let us merely nod in bemusement at the news that ex-treasurer Christopher Ward in 2004 had also worked for the Orwellian-named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

House races typically get short shrift from the public in a presidential election year, but it's clear, from the Saturday result in Illinois, that a Democratic president in 2009 might find himself (or herself) enjoying an augmented congressional majority. One gets the feeling that the grassroots electorate is poised to vote Democratic, and is merely waiting for the party to get its act together. Assuming it can.


Speaking of the party, has anybody else noticed that Barack Obama picked up a new superdelegate - or, more specifically, a newly created superdelegate?

Obama did a TV ad in that Illinois district for Bill Foster. Foster, by winning, automatically becomes a superdelegate. He'll back Obama, the home-state guy.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Hillary Clinton may soon lose a superdelegate, the aforementioned Client 9. If/when Eliot Spitzer steps down, he will be replaced in the governor's chair by his Democratic number two, David Paterson, but Paterson (already a Hillary superdelegate) will not be replaced until the next election. In other words, no Democratic lieutenant governor.

Taken together, these events translate into a potential net gain of two superdelegates for Obama. Plus, we also have the Mississippi primary tonight; an expected strong Obama win is likely to influence those seven superdelegates as well.

So I wonder: why does the trailing Democratic candidate presume to think that she can offer the leading Democratic candidate the second spot on her ticket?


Geraldine Ferraro, the '84 Democratic veep candidate and '08 Hillary surrogate, quoted in a California newspaper last Friday: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."

Baseball pitcher Bob Feller, speaking in 1946 about Jackie Robinson: "If he were a white man, I doubt they would even consider him as big league material."

Get my point?