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Why the GOP Lost IL-14

By Dennis Byrne

This will come as news to Washington politicians and pundits, but the Republicans lost former House Speaker Dennis Hastertʼs seat not because it represents a political sea change, as Democrats would have it.

Nor should they buy the Republican explanations that it was some kind of fluke.

Truth is, the loss of the historically Republican district has virtually no national meaning. It is a measure of the moribundity of the Illinoisʼ Republican Party, whose national consequences seem not to be fully appreciated by the GOPʼs national proprietors. The once proud and powerful party of the late senators Everett McKinley Dirksen and Charles Percy, and more recently former Gov. Big Jim Thompson, has sunken to such depths it didnʼt even bother to field token candidates in the populous Cook County.

In many respects, Illinois should be a swing state, much like Ohio, where Democrats and Republicans slug it out on an even playing field. Illinois is rural and urban, agrarian and industrial, with all the demographic makings of both major parties. Despite the conventional Potomac wisdom, Illinois should not be racked up as a permanent blue state.

But the loss of the Hastert-endorsed Republican candidate, Jim Oberweis to Democrat Bill Foster, a businessman, physicist and political novice, had less to do with national issues than it is confirmation that the Illinois Republican Party has slipped into a near-comatose state.

That weakened party allowed a three-time loser instead of a fresh, credible candidate to emerge as victor in the GOP primary to succeed Hastert. Jim Oberweis, who has made millions in the diary business, somehow has gotten it into his head that voters are clamoring for him. Oberweis already had won the loserʼs hat trick by failing in the 2002 and 2004 elections for U.S. Senate and in 2006 for governor. He revealed much of his craven self when he declared for Hastertʼs seat and said he had wanted to be a congressman all along.

Oberweis, however, managed to accomplish something with his mostly self-financed campaign: He established a reputation as an arrogant self-promoter who was loose with the facts. His primary opponent was an impressively credentialed conservative state senator Chris Lauzen. The primary fight turned nasty and was marked by personal animus. Even the nominally Republican Chicago Tribune couldnʼt bring itself to endorse Oberweis.

Then, how did a loser like Oberweis win the primary? You might say that the voters were gullible enough to follow Hastertʼs advice, thinking he knew what he was doing when he endorsed Oberweis. Clearly he didnʼt. Hastert stepped down in midterm, presumably to give his supposedly slam-dunk candidate seniority in the House. Now, about all Hastert has accomplished is to give Obama (who endorsed Foster) another super delegate at the Democrat convention.

The toll of the bitter primary fight and partyʼs incompetence is demonstrated by the fact that about a third fewer voters turned out for last Saturdayʼs special election for Hastertʼs seat than voted in the primary. But itʼs only the latest example of how Republican candidates have been outsmarted and outvoted.

Republicans hold not a single state-wide elective office, including governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and controller. The last Republican officeholder, Judy Barr Topkina, was persuaded by the party leadership five years ago to give up her treasurerʼs job to run against a Democratic hack, Rod Blagojevich. It was a weak campaign and she lost.

Someone nobody knows is running in November against Sen. Dick Durbin. Obama, as popular as he is, was given a free pass in 2004 when an intraparty squabble forced a young, bright and attractive Republican candidate to withdraw under a cloud, with no one to replace him. Party leadership eventually came up with out-of-stater Allen Keyes, which says it all. Only one Republican has gathered himself up enough to run for a Cook County office; no one even bothers considering taking on the Chicago-based Democratic Party, which runs the county.

The simple explanation is demographic: The Illinois electorate is younger and more Democratic. Suburbanites, a more educated and savvy lot, are less likely to be Republican. Itʼs an attractive explanation, but too general to be useful. It assumes that party organization, leadership and funding no longer matter much.

And hereʼs where the warning for the national party comes in. If you look too simply at the results in Hastertʼs district, youʼll come to think that demographics explain everything, therefore thereʼs no reason to toss money, effort, leadership and organization into a state as blue as Illinois. Itʼs gone forever.

But it has been precisely the absence of those essentials that have led to the GOP demise in Illinois. Here, Republicans long have been comfortable working with Chicago Democratic mayors, especially Richard J. Daley and his son Richard M. Daley. Just as the Daleys have been more comfortable working with Republican governors than Democratic ones. The relationship between the first Daley and the Democratic Gov. Dan Walker 30 years ago was a disaster. And the one between the current Daley and Democrat Blagojevich is no better. Indeed, Chicago mayors and Republican governors more resembled a tag team rather than rivals. Even a high Republican national official has made a great deal of money by dealing with the Democratic state administration. It is a strange breed of bi-partisanship that has led to an entire party being swallowed up by the competition.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Republican Party continues to implode, becoming an ever greater national embarrassment. Many in the party seem to be in suspended animation, waiting in vain for the leadership, such as it is, to come up with credible candidates and campaigns. Meanwhile, potentially talented young candidates are discouraged from making the effort by the absence of party organization and money. Divides over ideology tear at the partyʼs seams. Vision is absent.

The nation needs to know: Democrats can take no special pride in winning Hastertʼs seat. Itʼs only a case of Goliath slaying David.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist. dennis@dennisbyrne.net.

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