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Friday House Line: A Special Special Election in Illinois?

Tomorrow's special election in Illinois' 14th District could hold vital clues about the kind of election we'll see in the fall.

The seat -- being vacated by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) -- should be a relatively easy hold for Republicans. President Bush carried the district by double digits in 2000 and 2004, and Hastert has had no trouble winning re-election easily for the last several terms.

But, with just 24 hours left before votes are cast, both sides acknowledge the race between dairy magnate Jim Oberweis (R) and scientist Bill Foster (D) is quite close.

The on-the-ground contest between Oberweis and Foster has largely played out to form. Foster and fellow Democrats are working to tie Oberweis to President Bush and the war in Iraq. Oberweis and the NRCC are attacking Foster as a tax-and-spend Democrat.

On a candidate level, Oberweis has problems. He has run unsuccessfully for statewide office three times -- losing primary races for Senate in 2002 and 2004, and for governor in 2006 -- and even some Republicans acknowledge that he doesn't wear very well with voters. Foster won't light the world on fire as a candidate, according to Democratic insiders, but has run a steady and disciplined campaign to date.

A sure sign of the closeness of the race? The Oberweis campaign released a polling memo on Thursday showing their candidate at 47 percent, compared to Foster's 45 percent -- a lead well within the survey's 4.2 percent margin of error. The goal of the memo was to show positive growth in Oberweis' direction but the narrowness of the margin shows that this race is a true toss-up.

Sensing vulnerability/opportunity, the two national parties have weighed in heavily over the past few weeks.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent $1.2 million on the race, according to reports filed Thursday with the Federal Election Commission. That spending amounts to nearly one-fifth of the $6.4 million the NRCC had on hand at the end of January, the last month for which fundraising reports are available.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also spent more than $1 million on the race, although that expenditure is a small chunk of the $35 million the organization had in the bank at the close of January.

Why is so much money and attention being devoted to a single race in March? Because both sides know that special elections are widely seen by donors, activists and the media as leading indicators of the general election to come. The issues and messages that work (or don't) are widely regarded as a litmus test for upcoming regular elections.

DCCC communications director Jen Crider sought to cast the race in just those terms. "Illinois' 14th district shows that, like in 2006, Democrats are facing a favorable environment this year," she said. "Voters from across the political spectrum are responding to change candidates like Bill Foster who are committed to strengthening the economy and ending the war."

The NRCC, on the other hand, downplayed the national significance of the vote. "Bill Foster might think that throwing money at problems is the solution to Washington's financial mess, but raising taxes and spending recklessly is certainly not the solution to the problems Illinois voters are facing," said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain.

Recent political history says either side could be right about local versus national implications.

In 1994, special election victories in spring by Reps. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Ron Lewis (R-Ky.) in conservative-leaning districts held by Democrats were widely interpreted -- in hindsight -- as the first signs of the growing Republican wave that carried the GOP to a 52-seat pickup and control of the House.

Of course, for every Lucas and Lewis there are competitive special elections that wound up as isolated incidents rather than signals of things to come. In 2004, Democrats picked up Republican-held seats in South Dakota and Kentucky but that November only managed a two-seat net gain.

Both sides see the 14th District race as a potential harbinger, however, and that explains the amount of money being spent.

While the Illinois special election is the big news on the House front of late, we NEVER neglect the other races nationwide. Below you'll find the Line. As always, the number one ranked race represents as seat most likely to change parties in November.

Agree or disagree with The Fix's take on the 10 most vulnerable House seats? Write your own line or offer thoughts on ours in the comments section.

To the Line!

10. Ohio's 15th District (OPEN, GOP-held): Unlike his colleague in the open 16th District race (more on that below), state Sen. Steve Stivers (R) won a convincing victory on Tuesday and continues to impress as a candidate. Republicans are as optimistic about this seat as any in the country but remember that Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy (D) came within 1,500 votes of beating Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) in 2006 and is back again. (Previous ranking: 8)

9. Minnesota's 3rd District (OPEN, GOP-held): All is quiet in the race to replace Rep. Jim Ramstad (R). State Sen. Erik Paulsen has a clear path to the Republican nomination, while state Sen. Terri Bonoff is considered the favorite on the Democratic side. In 2006, Minnesota went overwhelmingly for Democrats at nearly every level of government. Will that trend continue this November? (Previous ranking: 10)

8. New Mexico's 1st District (OPEN, GOP-held): On paper, this district should be in the top five on the Line. Based in Albuquerque, the 1st went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by a 51 percent to 48 percent margin in 2004. But, Republicans have a top-tier candidate in Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, while Democrats seem headed toward a tough primary. (Previous ranking: 9)

7. New Jersey's 7th District (OPEN, GOP-held): Republicans -- led by state Sen. Leonard Lance and Kate Whitman, the daughter of the Garden State's former governor -- are in the midst of the grueling county endorsement season. Meanwhile, state Assemblywoman Linda Stender, who very nearly ousted incumbent (but departing) Rep. Mike Ferguson (R) in 2006, runs unopposed for the Democratic nod. (Previous ranking: 7)

6. New Jersey's 3rd District (OPEN, GOP-held): Rep. Jim Saxton (R) held this district for 24 years due to his ability to co-opt a number of moderate voters. His preferred successor may not be so lucky. Need evidence? The Sierra Club, which has always endorsed Saxton in his re-election races, went with state Sen. John Adler (D) this time around. (Previous ranking: 4)

5. Arizona's 1st District (OPEN, GOP-held): The indictment of incumbent Rep. Rick Renzi (R) (who will retire after this term) on 36 criminal counts -- including conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering -- is sure to dominate the news in this vast northern Arizona district for weeks and months to come. That's bad news given that Republicans are still casting around for a candidate while establishment Democrats have largely lined up behind former state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Virginia's 11th District (OPEN, GOP-held): Republicans' lone hope in this Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia district is that the primary campaign between former Rep. Leslie Byrne and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly gets nasty quickly and stays that way. It just might. (Previous ranking: 3)

3. Illinois' 11th District (OPEN, GOP-held): Remember when we wrote how disappointing New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann (R) had been as a candidate? He must have agreed, abruptly ending his bid late last month. Turmoil abounds on the Republican side, while state Sen. Debbie Halvorson (D) runs unimpeded. (Previous ranking: 6)

2. Ohio's 16th District (OPEN, GOP-held): State Sen. Kirk Schuring, the preferred successor of Rep.
Ralph Regula
(R) (who will retire this fall), won Tuesday's Republican primary 47 percent to 42 percent -- not exactly a momentum-builder for the fall. State Sen. John Boccieri is one of the Democrats' most highly touted recruits and has to be considered the favorite. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. New York's 25th District (OPEN, GOP-held): It seems that each day another Republican contender to replace Rep. Jim Walsh (R) opts out of this race. Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll's (D) decision to form an exploratory committee could complicate 2006 nominee -- and former Congressional staffer -- Dan Maffei's (D) return to Washington. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 7, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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