Democrat physicist Bill Foster beat Republican dairy tycoon Jim Oberweis in a special congressional election Saturday. Why is that important? The special election was to fill Dennis Hastert’s seat in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District. Hastert, who served as House majority leader in longer than any other Republican in history, held his seat in the historically very strong Republican congressional district for more than 20 years, often winning by wide margins.
Hastert retired in December. Foster’s victory against the very conservative Oberweis is viewed as a harbinger of trouble for the Republicans in November. Although the demographics of the area have changed somewhat in recent years, the 14th Congressional District has widely been viewed as a fairly secure Republican stronghold.
The race received national attention from both sides with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) providing material and financial support for Foster; the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spent more than $1 million in the district; John McCain made a personal appearance at an Oberweis fundraiser. DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen called Foster’s victory a "stunning rejection of the Bush Administration, its Republican allies, and presidential nominee John McCain.” The Chicago Tribune called the victory by the little known Foster as a "stunning upset."
The 14th Congressional District went heavily for George Bush in both 2000 and 2004, with Bush winning 56 percent of the vote there in 2004. The unofficial results put Foster beating Oberweis 52% to 48%. It is the first time since the post-Watergate scandal days of the early 1970s that a Democrat has won the district’s congressional seat.
It is difficult not to wonder whether this race can be viewed as a microcosm of the autumn election season to come, spelling potential big trouble for Republicans not only in their bid to maintain control of the White House, but also to avoid losing more ground to Democrats in the House and Senate.
Foster will serve out Hastert’s term, until it ends at the end of the year. Oberweis and Foster will engage in a rematch in November for a full congressional term.