July 21, 2010



Fatuous is a lovely word. It means complacently stupid, silly, inane or foolish. It can used to describe politicians, political pundits or voters.

After the 2008 election the Democrats held a 255-180 majority in the U.S. House, having gained a net of 79 seats in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and a 75-seat majority. Barack Obama won the presidency with a 9,549,957-vote margin in 2008, and the "Obama Nation" and Democratic congressional hegemony were deemed permanent for a generation. Republicans thought that was fatuous.

In 2009 the prospect of a Republican recapture the U.S. House, in which they held a majority from 1995 to 2006, was derided as fatuous by political pundits, prognosticators and Democrats, who said that the Republicans could not plausibly win a net of 38 House seats in 2010. Now that's fatuous, and the ouster of Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a Democratic loss of 50-plus seats are less a possibility than a likelihood.

The Rothenberg Political Report ranks 79 House seats "in play," of which 67 are held by Democrats and 12 by Republicans. In a "wave" election, in which one party wins nearly all of the close contests, Republicans could win 220-plus U.S. House races.

Illinois, with three Democratic U.S. representatives at risk and the open seat of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kirk a top Democratic takeover opportunity, ranks as "ground zero" in Republican expectations.

If incumbents Melissa Bean (D-8), Bill Foster (D-14) and Debbie Halvorson (D-11) are defeated, and if Republican Bob Dold retains Kirk's north Chicago suburban seat, the once fatuous will have occurred: The U.S. House will have gone Republican, and Obama can kiss off any legislative enactments in the next 2 years.

From a Democratic perspective, the sense of frustration is palpable. After all, the Democratic Congress has achievements: the $862 billion stimulus package, the $1 trillion health care overhaul, the financial regulation reforms. And there are two more in the pipeline: immigration and energy. Yet, according to June polls by Rasmussen, the voters are unappreciative, if not incensed. Congress' "reelect" number is just 32 percent, and Obama's approve/disapprove rating is 45/50 percent. For Democrats, doing more is getting less.

The Democrats, from a historical perspective, like to analogize 2008 to 1932, which was a so-called "critical election." It moved the country to the left, ended a generation of Republican rule, and precipitated an era of Democratic dominance of Congress that lasted until 1994. The Democrats won a combined 150 U.S. House seats in 1930 and 1932 and a combined 79 seats in 2006 and 2008.

But, as always, there is a reaction. The Democrats lost 80 seats in 1938, 47 in 1966 and 53 in 1994.  In the latter two off-year elections, the popularity of the Democratic president (Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton) was under 50 percent, and the Democrats suffered huge losses. Another drubbing looms as imminent this year.

Three factors are relevant. First, the 2008 Obama voters are not energized in 2010. That will create a Democratic falloff of 10 to 20 percent. The passion for "change" has abated. Second, the Republicans are energized, with hard-core conservatives detesting Obama, and they will turn out. Off-year elections draw 25 to 30 percent fewer voters than those in presidential years, which means that 2010 will resemble the anti-Democratic years of 1994 and 2002.

Here's a look at two Democratic districts:

14th District (far south suburban Fox River Valley: Elgin, Aurora and Saint Charles south to Oswego, Batavia and Yorkville): There are no "O's" in 2010 -- meaning Obama and Oberweis won't be on the ballot.

Republican Randy Hultgren, a 12-year state legislator from Wheaton, has a singular advantage in this election: He's not Jim Oberweis, the dairy magnate and angry, obnoxiously rabid conservative. In 2008, after three losing races for statewide office, Oberweis ran for the congressional seat vacated by former Republican speaker Denny Hastert in a solidly Republican district.

Hastert won the seat in 1986, and he became speaker in 1998. In the last decade the district, which includes eight counties, has evolved from exurban and rural to semi-suburban, spurred by cheap mortgage loans and rapacious housing development. Its population grew by 20 percent from 2000 to 2007, and the newcomers aren't congenital Republicans.

Hastert won his ninth term in 2002 by 135,198-47,165, getting 74.2 percent of the vote. While George Bush was winning in 2004 by 158,428-125,269 (with 54.0 percent of the vote), Hastert was reelected by 191,616-87,590, getting 68.6 percent of the vote and running 33,188 votes ahead of Bush. Clearly, Hastert was phenomenally popular as the speaker, but in 2006, against an unknown Democrat whose campaign focused on Bush's Iraq policies, Hastert won by only 117,870-79,274 (with 59.8 percent of the vote). Hastert's vote was down by 17,328 from 2002, but the Democrat's vote was up by 32,109. "Change" was afoot.

When Hastert quit in late 2007, having lost the speakership, the well known Oberweis was favored to win the seat. But he had a tough primary against the less obnoxious Chris Lauzen, a state senator, and he faced Democrat Bill Foster, an obscure -- but wealthy - businessman and scientist in the March 8, 2008, special election. In a turnout of 99,385, with each contender spending $2 million of his own resources, Foster scored a huge upset, winning by 52,205-47,180, getting 52.5 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 5,025 votes. It was a stunning outcome: The Republican speaker's district went Democratic, largely because Oberweis was a flawed candidate.

Foster trounced Oberweis in the November rematch by 185,404-135,653, with 57.8 percent of the vote in a turnout of 321,057. Obama beat John McCain in the district in the race for president by 181,329-145,345, with 55.0 percent of the vote in a turnout of 326,674. Bush beat Democrat John Kerry in 2004 by 158,428-125,269, with 55.0 percent of the vote in a turnout of 283,697.

Turnout increased in the 14th District by 42,977 from 2004 to 2008, Obama's vote was 55,901 higher than Kerry's, and McCain's vote was 13,083 lower than Bush's. Clearly, almost 10 percent of the district's voters surfaced to vote for Obama and Foster.

So here's the arithmetic for 2010: Turnout will be equal to the total of 182,363 in 2002, or about 138,000 less than in 2008. Foster has been a loyal vote for Obama, backing the stimulus and health-care initiatives. The anti-Obama voters will flock to the polls for Hultgren, but the 55,000-plus Obama enthusiasts from 2008 won't be there for Foster. A May poll by the Tarrance group gave Foster a 28 percent "reelect" and had the race at 45-45 percent. My prediction: Hultgren beats Foster by 96,000-89,000.

8th District (McHenry County, western Lake County, plus most of northwestern Cook County, including Barrington and Streamwood): Fatuous is an accurate description of Republican Phil Crane, a staunch conservative who represented various northwest districts from 1969 until his defeat in 2004. Complacent, old and clueless, Crane was a walking loser. He didn't know when to quit.

Crain won by 51,141 votes, with 60.1 percent of the votes cast, in 2000 and by 24,649 votes (57.4 percent) against Bean in 2002, in a turnout of 165,901. That should have been a major wake-up call, but while Bush was winning the district in 2004 by 153,245-121,710 (with 56.0 percent of the vote), Bean beat Crane by 139,792-130,601, getting 51.7 percent of the vote in a turnout of 270,393. In 2002 Crane won Cook County by 3,950 votes, Lake County by 14,528 votes and McHenry County by 6,171 votes; in 2004 he lost Cook by 9,537 votes and Lake by 874 vote and won McHenry by 1,220 votes. Crane was rejected, not Bean embraced. Crane ran 22,644 votes behind Bush.

In the Democratic-friendly year of 2006, Bean was reelected to her second term by a 12,635-vote margin, getting 50.9 percent of the vote, with 5.1 percent cast for a third-party candidate. Bean's vote rose from 70,626 in 2002 to 93,355 in 2006, while the Republican congressional vote dipped from 95,275 to 80,720.

The 2008 contest was a blowout. Bean spent $2.9 million and beat Republican Steve Greenberg by 179,444-116,081, getting 61.0 percent of the vote and running slightly ahead of Obama's 170,333-130,384 pasting of McCain, in a turnout of 300,717. Bush beat Kerry in the district in 2004 by 153,245-121,710 (with 56.0 percent of the vote), in a turnout of 274,955. Obama got 48,632 more votes than Kerry, and McCain got 22,861 fewer votes than Bush.

The 2010 arithmetic: Turnout will be in the realm of 170,000. The Republican candidate, Joe Walsh, has ethical problems, focusing on a foreclosure situation. But does it matter? Bean has been an Obama loyalist, supporting health care and other Obama initiatives, but she won't get 179,000 votes in 2010. She'll likely drop to under 90,000 votes -- or half the Obama vote. If Walsh can generate 75 percent of the McCain vote (97,500), he will win.

My prediction: The 8th District election is a referendum on Obama, with Bean tied inextricably to the president. Bean will try to focus on Walsh's flaws. Walsh will tie Bean to Obama. If the turnout is under 200,000, Walsh will win.

The Democrats hold a 12-7 majority in Illinois' U.S. House delegation. If it's 10-9 Republican after November, the Democrats will have lost the House.