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Previewing Tuesday's Special Elections

By Reid Wilson

In what might be called the first tests of this year's political landscape, voters will head to the polls Saturday and Tuesday to fill two vacant U.S. House seats in Illinois and Indiana. Should one or both seats flip party control, the national outlook on November's elections could change, and both parties are showing at least some concern that their seats may be in danger.

When former House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced his resignation last year, few thought his seat would cause Republicans heartburn. The Fourteenth District, stretching from the western Chicago suburbs and Aurora east to within a few miles of the Iowa border, has been solidly Republican under Hastert. After a narrow win in his initial bid, Hastert cruised to re-election ten times as President Bush won the district twice, each time by double digit margins.

But the political ground in the district has slowly changed under Hastert's feet, and while it is by no means Democratic territory, it is no longer the Republican bedrock it once was. This year both parties see a competitive race in which each candidate has a legitimate chance to win when voters head to the polls on Saturday.

In the February 5 primary Republicans nominated businessman Jim Oberweis, best known for his family's dairy business in the district (though he insists he's no dairy magnate, as many press reports have described him). Oberweis is a familiar name to voters; he campaigned for Republican nominations for Senate in 2002 and 2004 and ran for his party's gubernatorial nomination in 2006. Each time, he came close, but fell short of the nomination.

Democrats have countered with Bill Foster, a physicist and businessman who has worked at FermiLab, home to one of the most powerful particle accelerators in the world, which sits in the western end of the district. Highly touted by national Democrats, Foster squeaked out a primary victory over '06 nominee John Laesch, winning by just 400 votes out of more than 64,000 ballots cast.

Both candidates are independently wealthy and have spent heavily on what has become the most expensive special election so far this year. Through the February 17 pre-election FEC filing deadline, Foster had dropped more than $2 million, while Oberweis spent upwards of $2.3 million. Foster has lent himself close to $1.5 million and Oberweis has written his campaign nearly $2.9 million in checks.

The primary has grown decidedly unpleasant, with charges and countercharges flying on a daily basis. Foster has questioned Oberweis's honesty and integrity, while Oberweis has leveled charges that Foster has proposed an "amnesty tax" on businesses -- combining the two things Republicans despise most, taxes and illegal immigration -- and that Foster invented false claims about Oberweis.

Outside interest groups have gotten heavily involved as well, as have both parties' presidential candidates; Barack Obama cut an advertisement for Foster, and McCain visited the district to help Oberweis raise money. By any measure the race is tight: A Democratic poll out last week showed Foster up by four points, while a Republican poll released yesterday had Oberweis up by just two.

As a measure of how crucial each party sees the contest, both parties have spent well over $1 million on television advertisements, mailing pieces and phone banks to influence the contest. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent at least $1,022,000 since the beginning of February, while the National Republican Congressional Committee has dropped more than $1,230,000 in the same period.

Should Foster win on Saturday, Republicans will face renewed skepticism of their ability to take back congressional seats this year. If Democrats win a seat long dominated by Republicans, it will suggest that Democrats have yet to reach their ceiling.

Both sides are aggressively spinning potential storylines and setting expectations. If Oberweis pulls out a win, said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain, the playbook could be rewritten in Republicans' favor. "Democrats have been claiming for a long time that Illinois would be ground zero for where they plan to expand their majority. With Illinois being their presumptive nominee's home state, Democrats have a lot to live up to," he said. Several GOP sources said the race is "competitive," though most voiced optimism that they would hold on.

DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell argues that the race makes "abundantly clear ... that Democrats remain on the offense, aggressively working to strengthen our majority, while Republicans have been forced on defense and are spending their resources protecting Republican seats."

In Indiana, though, another Congressional District poses the parties with a very different problem. Vacated by the passing of longtime Democratic Rep. Julia Carson, the Seventh District, based in Indianapolis and containing most of surrounding Marion County, has proved less friendly to Democrats in recent years than it probably should. Carson's last three elections gave her just over 50% of the vote, suggesting that the right Republican might have a shot there.

In the special primary to replace her, Carson's grandson Andre captured the Democratic nomination while State Rep. Jon Elrod claimed the GOP nod. The late representative never spent huge amounts of money on her seat, and both candidates have kept their spending relatively low. Through the February 20 pre-primary reporting deadline, Elrod had raised just $71,000, with $46,000 cash on hand. Andre Carson had raised a more impressive $376,000 and retained $152,000 for the final two-week sprint.

Despite his cash advantage and the district's Democratic tilt, the DCCC has weighed in on Carson's behalf as well, signaling they may be worried about the outcome. The party has spent more than $200,000 on the seat, almost as much as Carson himself and about eight times what Elrod has spent, on mail, television advertisements and field organizing.

Thornell claims the DCCC spending in Indiana 7 isn't out of the ordinary, especially given the circumstances. "The reality is that this is a special election and you can't take anything for granted," he said. "You have to make sure voters know about the election and turn out and vote."

A Republican source echoed that sentiment, characterizing his party's spending in Illinois as "due diligence" and pointing to heavy spending by both parties in earlier special elections in Massachusetts and Ohio. While some suggested the GOP's spending in Ohio was a sign of a justifiably paranoid party, Spain characterized it as a net benefit, pointing out that the NRCC followed that victory with their second-strongest fundraising month of the cycle.

Voter turnout is crucial in both states. Despite comparable district sizes, fewer voters cast ballots for president in Carson's district than in those held by neighboring Reps. Steve Buyer and Dan Burton. And in Illinois, voters will have to go to the polls on a Saturday, the first time in state history an election will be held on the weekend. Uncertainty about who will turn out to vote makes both parties nervous, and makes both seats more volatile than they would otherwise be in November.

If Indiana's Seventh District falls into Republican hands, or if Illinois' Fourteenth District goes to Democrats, the national storyline could be altered. For Republicans, the upside is that a win in Indianapolis will go a long way toward stopping the flow of stories about the party's imminent demise. For Democrats, a win in Aurora and the Chicago exurbs will suggest 2008 might be a repeat of 2006.

The unpredictable nature of special elections will cost top strategists in both parties a considerable loss of sleep over the coming days. As voters in two states get set to cast their ballots, they, more than those who have yet to cast votes in the Democratic presidential primary, will offer a glimpse into the mind of the 2008 electorate and onto the landscape each party will face come November.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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