March 5, 2008


Aside from being pompous, arrogant, intolerant and utterly insufferable, Republican congressional candidate and perennial statewide loser Jim Oberweis is otherwise just a swell guy.

If he loses the March 8 special election to fill the 14th U.S. House District vacancy of resigned former U.S. House speaker Denny Hastert, Oberweis will do his party a great disservice: The media will interpret his defeat as a repudiation of President Bush and the Republicans and as a harbinger of more electoral disasters to come. Oberweis also will do his party a great disservice if he wins: He'll immediately start running for governor in 2010.

Polling by the Democrats puts their nominee, physicist and businessman Bill Foster, narrowly ahead in the solidly Republican Fox River Valley district, which includes all or part of eight far west suburban and rural counties, stretching from Saint Charles to Ronald Reagan's boyhood home of Dixon and including Elgin, Aurora, West Chicago, Geneva, Batavia, Yorkville, DeKalb and Oswego. Bush got 55 percent of the vote in the district in 2004 and 54 percent in 2000.

But the contest is all about Oberweis, age 61, long celebrated -- or reviled -- as the Jesse Helms of Illinois politics. Any contest without an incumbent is invariably a choice, while those involving an incumbent are a referendum on the incumbent's performance. Oberweis' sour personality and issue stances have made March 8 a referendum on him. If he loses, it will be a repudiation of Oberweis, not the Republicans.

The old saying "When in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout" aptly describes the campaign, which is full of sound and fury, negative direct mail and television ads, simplistic platitudes and big-buck spending. Both candidates are wealthy, self-funding businessmen. Oberweis is attacking Foster as a tax-hiking liberal who doesn't support our troops. Foster is blasting Oberweis as a Bush toady who will keep U.S. troops in Iraq for 10 more years. Oberweis opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants and wants a tamper-proof identification card for every non-citizen. Each candidate will spend $2 million, most of it besmirching his foe.

If voters are ready for the euphemistic "change" sought by Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, then the 14th District is a viable laboratory. The district should be so Republican that any bozo, even Oberweis, can win, but Foster is an appealing, nonpolitical candidate. If Foster wins, that is surely a "change."

The keys to the outcome are twofold:

First, keep voters energized. On Feb. 5 Oberweis, bolstered by Hastert's endorsement, beat maverick conservative state Senator Chris Lauzen (R-25) by 41,980-32,955 (with 56 percent of the total), in a Republican turnout of 74,935. Foster beat 2006 loser Jon Laesch by 32,982-28,433 (with 49.5 percent of the votes cast), with 5,082 votes going to Jotham Stein, in a Democratic turnout of 66,497.

The Republican primary turnout in 2006 was 69,198, while the turnout for the Democrats was just 22,831. In 2008, fueled by the "Obama Phenomenon," Democratic primary turnout tripled and almost matched that of the Republicans, while turnout for the Republicans was stagnant. However, there won't be any "Obamamania" on Saturday, March 8. Instead of 141,432 voters trooping to the polls, as they did on Feb. 5, turnout will be in the 80,000 range. That means that the contenders must target and energize their respective bases -- Oberweis' social conservatives and Foster's legion of Bush and Oberweis haters.

Second, there is significant internal party discontent with both nominees. Laesch got 40 percent of the vote in 2006 against Hastert, spending only $306,000 to Hastert's $5.2 million. In February Laesch strongly embraced Obama and carried DeKalb County, home to Northern Illinois University, as well as Kendall County, which contains a lot of younger voters in new developments around Yorkville, Oswego, Plano and Sugar Grove. Foster, the favored candidate, won in his base, Kane County (Geneva, Batavia, Saint Charles). Will the very liberal Laesch/Obama voters now back Foster? Of course, Oberweis, by ripping Foster's troop withdrawal proposal, is giving them every incentive.

Among Republicans, Lauzen's criticism of Hastert and Washington's preoccupation with "pork" spending won him a solid following. He has been a popular state senator for 16 years, and he criticized Oberweis as being unelectable if nominated. Oberweis poured in $1.6 million of his own money, while Lauzen contributed $325,000. Lauzen's voters detest Oberweis, but they are Republicans, don't want to embarrass the president, know it will be tough to dislodge Foster if elected, and presume that Oberweis will only be around for one term -- clearing the way for Lauzen next time.

My prediction: Some of the Lauzen vote will defect to Foster, but none of the Laesch-Stein vote will defect to Oberweis; instead, they just won't vote on March 8. Oberweis will win, but by fewer than 1,000 votes, and then Oberweis and Foster will continue their battle, with a rematch in November.

On March 11, another special congressional election will be held in Indiana's 7th U.S. House District, which takes in Indianapolis and its close-in suburbs and which has a 30 percent black population. The black incumbent, Julia Carson, died, and her grandson Andre is the Democratic nominee, facing white Republican Jon Elrod. Julia Carson got only 54 percent of the vote in the 2004 and 2006 elections. An Elrod upset is possible, but more likely is a 60 percent-plus win by Carson, given further credence to presumptions that 2008 will be a big Democratic year.

Here's a look at other Illinois congressional primary outcomes:

10th District (North Shore suburbs and east Lake County): Incumbent Republican Mark Kirk is very worried. After winning by a 78,275-vote margin, with 64 percent of the votes cast, in 2004, Kirk beat Democrat Dan Seals by only 13,651 votes (with 53 percent of the total) in 2006. Kirk spent $3.5 million, to Seals' $1.8 million.

Seals is back for a rematch, is campaigning on a get-out-of-Iraq-now platform, and ran up a stunning primary win on Feb. 5, when he Seals amassed 74,768 votes (81.4 percent of the total cast) to Jay Footlik's 17,036 votes. Kirk was unopposed in the Republican primary and got 44,331 votes. As in the 14th District, Democratic turnout was spurred by the Clinton-Obama primary, but the fact remains that the combined Seals-Footlik vote was twice that of Kirk's.

The congressman, a social liberal, was an early supporter of John McCain, but a perfect storm is brewing for November. Iraq will still be unresolved. Obama's core constituency consists of blacks, young voters and very affluent whites, both Jews and gentiles, and the 10th District is full of rich white people. If Obama is the Democratic nominee, he'll carry the North Shore with at least 60 percent of the vote, and that will be enough to sweep Kirk out.

8th District (western Lake County and McHenry County): In this historically Republican area, Democrat Melissa Bean scored an upset 9,191-vote victory in 2004 and was re-elected by 12,635 votes in 2006. This year Republicans quietly hope that Obama will be a liability, not an asset. In the Feb. 5 primary, Bean faced an anti-war Democrat and trounced her 62,577-12,673, with 83.1 percent of the votes cast in a turnout of 75,250. Three Republicans sought their party's nomination, and Steve Greenberg prevailed with 28,517 votes in a turnout of 49,872 -- more than 25,000 fewer than the Democrats.

Bean has endorsed Obama, as have most Illinois congressional Democrats, but the 8th District is not the 10th District: It is upscale and white, but not liberal. Bush won the district twice with 56 percent of the vote. Republicans hope that Bean will be bracketed in voters' minds with Obama, that McCain will capture a solid 55 to 60 percent of the vote, and that Greenberg will get almost all of that McCain vote.

11th District (far southwest suburbs: New Lenox, Mokena, Frankfort, Joliet, Kankakee, Ottawa, Streator, Morris and LaSalle): It's like rats abandoning a sinking ship. First, incumbent Republican Jerry Weller, who won with 55.1 percent of the vote in 2006, decided he'd rather be in Guatemala. After marrying the majority leader of Guatemala's Congress and starting a family, Weller got himself peppered with ethics allegations. To the relief of Republicans, Weller retired, and he helped recruit New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann as his replacement. But then, after winning the nomination, Baldermann quit, saying that he lacks the time to run.

The Democratic nominee is state Senator Debbie Francesco Halvorson, whose political base is in northern Will County. She will be amply funded by Washington Democrats, but her main liabilities are her association with Emil Jones' leadership in the Illinois Senate and her consistent support of Governor Rod Blagojevich. Republicans figured that Baldermann was the perfect contrast -- a local official who could blast Halvorson as "Blago's Buddy."

Unless Republicans find a new, credible candidate real soon, "Blago's Buddy" will be a winner by default in a Republican district.