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Another hit on the Republican Party

Image: Bill Foster
Don't point to Democrat Bill Foster's victory Saturday as direct evidence of hard times to come for the Republican Party, but it is an indicator.AP file
/ Source: National Journal

Anyone who has watched American politics lately didn't particularly need to see another piece of evidence proving just how challenging the political environment is for Republicans.

But Republican Jim Oberweis' loss to Democrat Bill Foster in Saturday's special election in Illinois' 14th District -- a seat held for over two decades by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) -- is just one more example.

The heavily Republican district that President Bush carried with 55 percent in 2004 gave Oberweis 47 percent, a big swing but not a surprising one given Bush's high disapproval ratings.

It would be unfair to lay the blame for this loss solely on Bush and his unpopularity, though.

A weak candidate who had already lost two bids for the Senate and one for governor, Oberweis had upside-down numbers -- higher unfavorable than favorable ratings -- in some polls heading into the election, and that was probably a major contributing factor in his loss.

Had either Bush's approval ratings been higher or Republicans nominated a candidate with less baggage, this seat likely wouldn't have turned over.

The National Republican Congressional Committee was forced to throw $1.2 million, roughly 20 percent of its total bank account balance, to defend a seat that never should have been in play.

Probably the most on-target criticism of NRCC Chairman Tom Cole is that he actually wanted this job and beat two rivals for it this cycle. Reps. Phil English, R-Pa., and Pete Sessions, R-Texas, should be thanking their lucky stars they came up short in the balloting.

Republicans should be alarmed over poll numbers measuring party identification and enthusiasm of voters. The advantage Democrats enjoy over Republicans in voter ID ranges from as low as 8 points to as high as 14 points, depending upon the poll -- a lot considering the parties were dead even five years ago.

A just completed Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll of 838 registered voters conducted Wednesday through Sunday -- with a 3.5-point error margin -- showed 37 percent identifying themselves as Democrats, 28 percent as Republicans and 31 percent as independents. When figures were adjusted for independents who said which party they leaned toward, Democrats rose to 50 percent and Republicans to 39 percent. Ten percent stayed purely independent or wouldn't say.

Voting in the 2004 presidential election showed just how important party identification can be. Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts won the vote of 89 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents, and Bush carried 93 percent of the Republicans and GOP leaners. Even among white voters, the GOP edge was just 2 points among party members, 3 points with leaners pushed.

Then there is enthusiasm.

In a presidential election year, it's a decent bet that Republicans, no matter how demoralized, will turn out in numbers in line with past election years. When the GOP presidential race was still actively contested, Republican turnout was solid and in some cases reached record highs. The danger for the GOP is if there is an extraordinarily high Democratic turnout in the general.

It's not hard to imagine that Sen. , R-Ariz., could match the national and state-by-state vote totals Bush received in 2004, or that the Democratic nominee, either Sen. of Illinois or Sen. of New York, might pick up a substantially higher vote count than Kerry did four years ago.

The turnout figures in Democratic primaries and enthusiasm levels in national polls certainly suggest that could be the case, and it would obviously have a detrimental effect on GOP candidates downballot.

Even if there isn't a disproportionate Democratic turnout, Republicans would need to win over virtually all of the pure independents, quite a chore considering they broke Democratic in 2006. If the turnout trends seen in the primaries continue, that wouldn't even be enough.

While it is hard for a party to gain a lot of House seats in the election following a big win, and the wave that Democrats used to regain the House and Senate in 2006 certainly qualifies as big, one has to wonder in this environment how many more they could get.

Currently, the Cook Political Report lists 22 Republican seats in three competitive categories: 10 are "Tossups," another 11 are "Lean Republican" (down from 12 after the Illinois 14th District loss) and the neighboring open seat in Illinois' 11th District is in the "Lean Democratic" column. Twenty-two more are in the potentially competitive category of "Likely Republican."

While a single-digit seat gain for Democrats has been expected, the potential for seat gains to creep into the teens appears to be growing, with close to half of 26 open seats in danger and about two-dozen incumbents at some degree of risk.

Considering the GOP fielded a flawed candidate in Oberweis, it is unwise to extrapolate his loss nationally and begin predicting overblown gains for Democrats. But the special election does serve as a reminder of just how ugly the environment is for Republicans these days and provides a taste of what a second bad election in a row for the GOP might look like.