Sunday, March 9, 2008

Lessons from Last Night's Illinois Special Election

Yesterday, in a special election in what was assumed to be a GOP-friendly congressional district, Democrat Bill Foster (the son of a former Wisconsin civil rights pioneer) defeated perpetual candidate Jim Oberweis to win a seat vacated by former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. There's already plenty of speculation on what this means nationally, but I think it's worth looking at the ramifications here in Northeastern Wisconsin.

This fall's most eagerly anticipated local election is the rematch between former state assembly speaker John "Career Politician" Gard and Rep. Steve "Dr. Millionaire" Kagan. For most of 2007 the GOP seemed to be licking their chops at the chance to dethrone a novice politician who got off to a less than auspicious start in Washington, but recently that enthusiasm seems to have died down a bit -- despite a strong 4th quarter fund-raising effort by Gard.

Foster's win should have the Gard camp reaching for the Pepto for several reasons:

* Foster got some help from Sen. Barack Obama, and while Kagan would likely not receive the kind of assistance Foster got he will certainly get a boost should Obama win the nomination. Look at where Obama campaigned when he was here in Wisconsin: Oshkosh, Green Bay, Wausau ... and an event in Kaukauna was canceled due to weather. With John McCain on the GOP ticket, Wisconsin will be won by whomever takes the Fox Valley. If he is the nominee, Obama will be back and Rep. Kagan will be there to greet him.

Remember, Kagan's a superdelegate who has endorsed Obama. If the nomination comes down to the superdelegates -- you can bet Kagan will get some love back in the fall.

Now if Hillary is the nominee Gard not only dodges a bullet, but may benefit from independents voting for McCain.

* Gard shouldn't expect much help from the NRCC. Seriously, what the hell is going on with these people? The WI-8 may be targeted by the Washington establishment, but this isn't your typical election year for the GOP: there are at least 28 Republican members of the House that are retiring after the current term. Many of those seats will remain safely in GOP hands, but some won't, which is just another distraction that will take away from the attention the NRCC devotes to targeted races.

Then there's the money issue. The NRCC is having an awful time raising money -- and what money it does seem to pull in it seems to be spending rather foolishly. Third party groups may help to mitigate this, but I can't see Gard getting nearly the assistance he got from Washington in 2006 this time around.

Again, if Hillary is the nominee this will change as she will certainly add to the GOP's coffers when the NRCC sends out its "Your Donation Can Stop Hillary!" mailers.

So Republicans will say things like, "We shouldn't read too much into this" in public, but privately they should be worried. The Chicago Tribune is calling this tantamount to Tom Daschle's defeat in 2004 in terms of boosting Democratic morale -- and if a party's leadership is being rejected by the voters at the polls, loyal foot soldiers like John Gard won't have a chance, even against a vulnerable opponent.

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