‘There’s nothing in life that you can’t improve by throwing money at it.”
Two months after delivering that naïve expression of left-wing dogma, Democrat Bill Foster is America’s newest congressman. In a special election Saturday, he won the Illinois House seat once held by former Speaker Dennis Hastert. At least until January, Foster will represent a district that gave President Bush 55 percent of its vote in 2004. That the free-spending Hastert could not anoint a successor that conservatives would turn out to elect should serve as a warning to the GOP nationally: their profligate ways may come back to haunt them come November.
The liberal Foster’s victory in this once-conservative district bodes ill for the GOP as a whole, but especially in Illinois. In three successive elections, Illinois Republicans managed to lose the governor’s mansion, the state legislature, the strongly Republican seat of former Rep. Phil Crane, and a U.S. Senate seat. Just over a week ago, New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann, the elected Republican nominee, abruptly withdrew from the race for the neighboring 11th District seat of retiring Rep. Jerry Weller.
With the odds strongly favoring Barack Obama’s name at the top of the Democratic ticket this year, a disastrous 2008 election looms for the Illinois GOP. It could bring the loss of at least four Republican House seats in Illinois and at least one more in 2012, after the intractably Democratic state legislature redraws the map.
Although Saturday’s loss was not unexpected, Republicans were quick to cast blame. Some pointed to Dennis Hastert’s decision to resign early, opening the way for a low-turnout special election that an energized Democratic base could dominate. Others blamed the demographics of the district, which has become less Republican as Chicago refugees settle in Kane and Kendall counties. There are still more Republicans than Democrats in the district, but it is no longer majority Republican.
Some blamed the Republican nominee, wealthy businessman Jim Oberweis. He was Hastert’s handpicked successor. Although conservative, he was the nominal ally of the moderate state GOP leaders who have ushered in the party’s current decline. A three-time loser in primary elections for senator and governor, Oberweis lost his first general election by six percentage points, despite spending $2.9 million from his personal fortune and receiving about $1.3 million in independent expenditures from the cash-strapped NRCC. Oberweis will face Foster again in November, but as a challenger and clear underdog.
His critics took Saturday’s loss as an opportunity to strike. “Oberweis is clearly unelectable,” Doug Ibendahl, former general counsel of the state GOP and a vocal detractor of both Hastert and Oberweis, told National Review Online Sunday. “This is the fourth time he’s lost. I doubt too many Republicans voted for Foster, but I bet a lot of them stayed home.” That they did; only 98,000 votes cast on Saturday, after 75,000 Republicans had voted in the special election primary on February 5.
Bill Pascoe, an experienced Illinois political consultant and an Oberweis spokesman, acknowledged the campaign’s tactical mistakes. When a Foster ad attacked Oberweis for wanting to continue the Iraq war for ten years, Oberweis responded with his own ad refuting the claim and attacking Foster’s position on Iraq. The ad backfired.
“We were taking about Iraq for a week,” Pascoe told NRO. “They wrapped Bush around our neck.” A campaign can say all the right things on an issue — but it had better be the right issue.
Oberweis also brought baggage from his earlier campaigns, in which he’d earned the enmity of the local media. Last July, the Federal Election Commission fined Oberweis for appearing in a 2004 commercial for his dairy business while he was simultaneously running for the GOP Senate nomination. A television spot from his 2006 race for governor included a doctored Chicago Tribune headline. When the Tribune finally endorsed Foster, its editorial was 90-percent anti-Oberweis. The editors wrote nothing positive about Foster until the last two paragraphs, which argued only that he would be better than Oberweis. A Survey USA poll released two days before the election showed Oberweis’s unfavorables at 49 percent, eleven points higher than his favorables.
As Republicans look to lay blame for the loss, Foster deserves credit for his victory. After a month of exclusively negative advertising, Foster ran his first positive ad — an endorsement from Obama — in the campaign’s final week. It worked. Republicans nationwide should note that Foster’s association with Obama was very helpful to him.
Another thing Foster did right was to appeal beyond his left-wing base. His strategy targeted independents and even some Republicans — especially those from the district of Oberweis’s primary opponent, state senator Chris Lauzen. One of Foster’s mailings attacked Oberweis for slinging mud at his fellow conservative Republican.
“This is not the time for those of us in the traditional grassroots to loudly point fingers and place blame,” Lauzen tells NRO. But he was willing to point the finger quietly. “Now is the time to quietly observe whether our party leadership learns a lesson about the limited role that money and clout play in campaigns,” he said. “If the most politically powerful among us choose to bring nothing but money and obeisance to campaigning, we will all be watching liberal Democrats win.”
The money, of course, refers to Oberweis — whom Lauzen did not endorse after their bitter primary campaign. The clout refers to Hastert, who may have endorsed Oberweis simply out of personal animosity toward Lauzen.
Even if Lauzen oversimplifies the lesson of this campaign, his words should be heeded by Republicans. A former Speaker in the waning days of the GOP congressional majority, Hastert could be considered a poster boy for GOP failure there. In his 22 years in Congress, he funneled hundreds of millions of federal dollars into his district. Yet the moment he disappeared, no amount of money or influence could keep the district’s voters loyal to his wishes — to his party or to the successor he had chosen for himself.
The lesson may be that Bill Foster won despite being wrong — precisely because he was wrong. There are some things in life that one cannot improve by throwing money at them.
– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.