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A Proxy War in Illinois

This Saturday, voters in Illinois' 14th district will go to the polls to choose a replacement for a political institution, former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Hastert won't be on the ballot, nor will Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Barack Obama (D-Ill.). But all three men have something riding on the outcome.

The special election contest to fill out the remainder of Hastert's term is between scientist Bill Foster (D) and dairy magnate Jim Oberweis (R), and both candidates have eagerly sought the help of their parties' presidential hopefuls.

On Tuesday, Foster released a new ad featuring home-state favorite son Obama. "You may think you have to wait until November to vote for change, but here in Illinois you can start Saturday, March 8," Obama says in the spot, adding that he's endorsed Foster "because he represents the change we need."

McCain, meanwhile, hasn't cut any ads for Foster, but the Arizonan did headline a Feb. 20 fundraiser for Oberweis in Sugar Grove, Ill. The event netted more than $250,000 for the Oberweis campaign. And in an appearance that day with McCain at Aurora Municipal Airport, Oberweis sought to link his Democratic opponent to McCain's.

"Whether the name is Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or Bill Foster, the Democrats' agenda is clear: bigger government, higher taxes, more power flowing to Washington ... raising the white flag and immediate withdrawal from Iraq ... a big government takeover of health care ... amnesty and government benefits for 10 million illegal immigrants," Oberweis said.

While the seat should be reliably Republican, polls have shown the contest to be extremely tight, drawing heavy interest - and spending - from Washington, D.C. Through Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee had spent more than $1.2 million on the race, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent just over $1 million as, the biggest chunk coming in $346,000 worth of ad buys on Monday.

For Obama, the race represents a chance for him to show off some coattails and burnish his image as someone who can help Democrats win even in red districts.

McCain is facing off against an Illinois hero, and beyond the fundraiser has not put his full political might behind Oberweis' campaign. But Republicans do hope their presumptive presidential nominee can help draw moderates and independents to their candidates downballot.

"I don't know that he can trump Obama there [in Illinois], but I think he helps us in every district," said NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.).

Much more so than McCain, the GOP luminary who really has something to lose in this contest is Hastert. The former Speaker took a risk by resigning last year rather than serving out the 110th Congress, since special elections are unpredictable and expensive.

Hastert also took a gamble by throwing the full weight of his endorsement and his political operation behind Oberweis during the GOP primary. Though Oberweis has run and lost multiple campaigns before, Hastert preferred him to state Sen. Chris Lauzen (R), with whom Hastert has had a long-running feud. If Oberweis flames out, some Republicans may wonder whether Hastert backed the wrong horse.

"McCain is fine but the guy who can motivate people is Denny Hastert," said Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood (R). "What an embarrassment for him if Foster wins. He has a lot at stake."

By Ben Pershing  |  March 6, 2008; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign  
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