Yeah, Sen. Barack Obama won the Wyoming Democratic caucus yesterday by a twenty-plus point margin, but his bigger victory came in Illinois, where he won a proxy war with Sen. John McCain in the special election to replace former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Obama cut an ad on behalf of Democrat Bill Foster while McCain personally campaigned with Republican Jim Oberweis. Foster won by a comfortable 53% to 47% margin in a traditionally Republican district in which President Bush garnered 55% of the vote in 2004, and that hadn’t elected a Democrat since the 1970’s. Those who have argued Obama would have long coattails in November are surely cheered by the results.
But yesterday’s special election has deeper implications that have Republicans worried nationwide, possibly presaging a second Big Blue Wave that could potentially reshape congressional politics for a decade or more:
The defeat — whether or not there are national implications — is a major setback for the NRCC and House Republicans. The NRCC spent nearly $1.3 million defending the seat, a significant percentage of the $6.4 million the committee showed on hand at the end of January. That is a major investment of limited resources — only to come up empty.
House Republicans, already dispirited by the loss of their majority in the 2006 election and more than two dozen retirements within their ranks since then, will likely take this defeat hard. Watch to see whether a rash of retirements breaks out over the coming weeks as vulnerable members take the Illinois special election as a sign of things to come in the fall.
Party identity sticks hard, but we may be in the midst of the type of large scale partisan realignment we haven’t seen since the Democrats lost the South in the 1960’s. In 2006 Northeastern Republicans were virtually eradicated from the congressional map, and 2008 is shaping up to do the same in the Midwest. What this means for Washington’s most vulnerable Republican, Rep. Dave Reichert, remains unclear, but… well… it can’t look good from his perspective. Twice now Reichert has been bailed out by multi-million dollar NRCC expenditures in a district that used to pump money into the party under Rep. Jennifer Dunn instead of sucking money out; with an unprecedented number of open seats to defend and a staggering cash disadvantage, the NRCC is going to have to make some tough choices about where they invest their resources.
With so many other fires to fight this cycle, does it make sense for the party to continue to prop up a perpetually needy Reichert? Or, would they be better off protecting stronger incumbents elsewhere, and then coming back with an energetic Reagan Dunn against a freshman Rep. Darcy Burner in 2010, a cycle in which Democrats are due an electoral backlash? I know conventional wisdom dictates that a party’s first priority is to defend the seats they hold, but if Burner is as much of a lightweight as Republicans claim they believe her to be, a 2010 strategy could prove politically savvy. And besides, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the NRCC simply may not have the option of continuing to throw good money after bad.
Regardless of the nominee at the top of the ticket Democrats are poised to make substantial gains in both houses of Congress. How big and lasting those gains are remains to be seen, but either way, shifting demographics and party alignment don’t bode well for the GOP in WA-08.