House GOP funk worsens
By: John Bresnahan and Josh Kraushaar
March 9, 2008

For National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.), every week seems to bring a new set of problems. On Saturday night, things got even worse.

With Democrat Bill Foster's victory in the Illinois 14th District special election, Democrats now hold the seats occupied only 21 months ago by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) — the two GOP lawmakers who ran the House from 1998 to 2006.

Since September, Cole has faced a barrage of bad news:

• The NRCC lags behind the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee by nearly $30 million in cash on hand.

• GOP House leadership endured an embarrassing scuffle when Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried to fire Cole's top two staffers, during which Cole threatened to resign.

• There has been a wave of retirement announcements by veteran Republican lawmakers that will force the NRCC to defend what were once seen as safe GOP seats.

• Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) was indicted on 35 federal corruption charges, which puts another Republican-controlled district in play.

• And the FBI continues its criminal investigation into a brewing accounting scandal that centers on the former NRCC treasurer's activities.

But the GOP's defeat in Illinois' special election Saturday may trump those setbacks, at least in the short term. Cole and the House Republican leadership are blaming the loss directly on GOP candidate Jim Oberweis. A dairy owner who lost three consecutive statewide elections before Saturday, Oberweis has a long history of political baggage. He won the recent nomination without receiving the support of his Republican primary rival, state Sen. Chris Lauzen.

"By itself, this would not be that big of a deal, but coupled with everything else it will just deflate the [House Republican] Conference," said an aide to one top GOP lawmaker. "And symbolically, losing Hastert's seat is like the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad for Republicans."

Cole and the NRCC are desperately spinning Oberweis' defeat as an isolated incident that is not endemic of further GOP losses in the fall. NRCC Communications Director Karen Hanretty, new to the panel after the previous spokeswoman resigned last month, said, "The one thing 2008 has shown is that one election in one state does not prove a trend. In fact, there has been no national trend this entire election season."

Democrats, however, note that the NRCC spent $1.2 million, one-fifth of its cash hoard, in backing Oberweis' ultimate defeat. That comes on top of the $2 million-plus that Oberweis spent from his own pocket during the race. The DCCC spent more than $1 million running ads against Oberweis.

Democrats also point out that Hastert never took less than 64 percent in the solidly Republican district, carried handily by President Bush in both 2000 and 2004.

Even better from Democrats' perspective, the efforts on behalf of Oberweis by Hastert, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), their presumptive 2008 presidential nominee, were not enough to stave off Oberweis' loss. All three Republican leaders had campaigned for Oberweis in recent weeks, with McCain attending a fundraiser for him last month that raised nearly $257,000.

House Republicans already faced a daunting political landscape as Election Day grows closer. Twenty-eight House Republicans have announced their retirements or have resigned this election cycle – and nearly half of those represent highly competitive districts.

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