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Republicans take one on the chin in a special House election

March 8, 2008 | 10:21 pm

Republian chieftains have had reason to sleep a little better at night lately. With their party's presidential race settled, they are gleefully anticipating the continued trench warfare in the Democratic contest. On the the financial front, as the New York Times reported Friday, the Republican National Committee finds itself far more flush than its Democratic counterpart.

But the results in Saturday's special election to replace ex-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert will not occasion sweet dreams within GOP ranks.

Democrat Bill Foster beat Republican Jim Oberweis, 52% to 48%, in the battle to replace Hastert, who gave up the seat he had held since 1986 -- easily -- several months after the Democratic takeover of the House in the 2006 elections meant his tenure as speaker was over.

Karen Hanretty, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, gamely tried to dismiss the results in a release issued late Saturday.

"The one thing 2008 has shown is that one election in one state does not prove a trend," Hanretty said. "In fact, there has been no national trend this entire election season. The presidential election is evidence of that. ... The one message coming out of 2008 so far is that what happens today is not a bellwether of what happens this fall.”

Her spin won't wash.

Foster's victory in Illinois' 14th district (which includes the town of Dixon, Ronald Reagan's birthplace) will reverberate, at least in the short term. Pundits will wonder whether it will join the ranks of the stray special election ...

that turns out to be a harbinger.

In the fall of 1991, Democrat Harris Wofford's win over a much-better known Republican, Richard Thornburgh, for the Senate seat in Pennsylvania opened up by the death of Republican John Heinz came to be viewed as an early indicator of the economic discontent that a year late would win Bill Clinton the presidency. (The campaign also made the political world -- particularly Clinton -- stand up and take notice of Wofford's two main strategists, James Carville and Paul Begala.)

In May, 1994, a hint of what was to occur later that year surfaced in Kentucky, when Republican Ron Lewis won a special election for a House seat that a Democrat had held for more than 40 years before he died in office. The Democrat who was picked to try to hold onto the seat was so confident he traveled to Washington for some apartment hunting before the vote. But Lewis' victory presaged the GOP wave that in November sent scores of new Republicans to Capitol Hill and gave the party control of Congress.

Foster's triumph in Illinois may end up a fluke; perhaps this November -- when he seeks a full two-year term and voter participation assuredly will be larger than it was Saturday -- he'll get bounced.

But for now, Democrats will revel in it as a sign of things to come (especially since Republican presidential-nominee-to-be John McCain headlined a recent fundraiser for Foster's GOP foe).

-- Don Frederick