IL-14: Why Bill Foster Won
by bored now, Sun Mar 09, 2008 at 08:12:01 AM EDT
first of all, congratulations to bill foster, our newest member of congress. it will be kind of weird calling him congressman. and congratulations to his staff and all the volunteers who helped elect foster. what a tremendous achievement!
foster's election is vindication of all those who believed that a serious democratic candidate with a great campaign organization could turn il-14 blue. and now we have! it is also vindication for the plan that bill and tom put together, and especially the networking they did to create a solid pool of campaign workers who went out and delivered the vote for foster. this should serve as both proof of what a good campaign can do and an example for the local democratic parties and their future candidates.
it's probably too early to really dissect how bill foster won denny hastert's open seat but we can put some things into context.
there's no way to overstate the level of preparation that bill foster did before running for this seat. while there have been some who sought to minimize foster's work with patrick murphy, foster set for himself the goal of understanding how congressional campaigns work, what a good congressional campaign looks and feels like, and how it unfolds. it should be clear by now that bill foster returned to illinois with the firmest grasp of how to run for congress by any democrat in the il-14. make no mistake, this level of preparation was a huge advantage for foster -- he knew what it would take, he was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to win, and he stuck with it. foster now gets to enjoy the fruits (or, more appropriately, the responsibilities) of his sacrifices.
let's go back, though, to the framework i've used before. winners of elections are the one who put together the best effort in this five areas:
1. candidate. all the major candidates in this race have had flaws. but the one thing that foster did, which gave him an advantage -- if ever so slight -- was to try to minimize those flaws. as carl pointed out, foster "needs to improve his communication skills." unable to take advantage of the long tail of a presidential campaign (this criticism has been made of barack obama, as well, about his debating skills), the foster campaign choose to place him sparingly in large group functions where he didn't perform as well, and focus on his appeal one on one (and through the use of surrogates), where he performed better.
foster's luck has been to run against other seriously flawed candidates. it didn't hurt at all to be seen as a practical candidate amongst other candidates viewed as extreme, or wouldn't raise money, or had loose ties to the area. foster benefited from not running against a "perfect candidate." in this context, it didn't matter that he was flawed, because of the flaws of those he ran against. what did matter is that his campaign didn't deny or ignore his flaws, but sought to minimize them. this gave him a slight advantage here.
2. money. bill foster lost the money race ($2,121,908 to $2,884,492). independent expenditures appear to have been a wash. but what foster and the democrats spent was sufficient to raise his name recognition AND his favorability ratings. about the only thing we can say here to foster's advantage is that at least he had $2.1M. the alternatives would have resulted in democrats being significantly out-spent, probably at least by 10 to one, and perhaps even greater. there is simply no question that foster alone was prepared to compete at this level. the proof here is that foster raised $805,908 from other individuals while oberweis only raised $604,492 from other individuals.
3. political environment. the dominant environmental aspects for this special election were the fact that it was a special election held in the last year of george bush's administration with the retiring of the former speaker of the house. bush looked to be unpopular while hastert remained popular in his old district.
special elections are all about turnout. pushing turnout requires organization, which is the fifth factor. but foster was able to unite democrats around his candidacy (89% of self-identified democrats polled said they had or would vote for him while only 76% of self-identified republicans said the same for oberweis) AND he had much broader appeal among independents (47%-25%). foster himself made every effort to reach out to the supporters of his former democratic opponents.
but special elections always have national significance -- especially for republicans. cqpolitics says:
First: the district carries great symbolic significance because it was the bailiwick of Republican J. Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the U.S. House for most of the dozen years that Republicans were in the majority from 1995 through 2006. Hastert's resignation last November prompted this unusual Saturday balloting.
Second: The race is a close one. Party strategists and political analysts will be closely monitoring the returns for what the outcome might portend for November elections that are less than eight months away. Democratic scientist Bill Foster and Republican businessman Jim Oberweis appear neck-and-neck in the 14th, which takes in suburbs and rural territory west of Chicago.
Special elections always provide grist for the national party committees -- in particular the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which is the political arm of the majority Democrats in the U.S. House, and its partisan counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
dccc chair chris van hollen said "Bill Foster's victory in the seat that was held by Speaker Hastert sends a political shock wave across America this election year,""a rebuke of the bush administration" and john mccain (who raised money for oberweis). bloomberg notes,"Analysts said the election is a sign that Republican losses are likely to continue this year, after the party lost control of the House and Senate in 2006. 'I don't think it means the end of the Republican party like some might say, but it means the worst is not over,' said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington."
4. local climate. what we found in 2006 and now, in 2008, is that the electorate in il-14 was highly disposed towards electing a democrat. the generic ballot poll in 2006 showed a one point difference between the generic democrat and republican, and that result held through this special election. instead of the 11 point spread between the presidential candidates that national punditry focused on, local observers recognized that barack obama won this district in 2004, and the generic ballot test demonstrated that voters were more than willing to consider voting for a democrat. but they needed to know who they were and at least something about them.
the chicago tribune noted, "That Foster is even in contention in the 14th Congressional District is further proof of the changing suburban political landscape. The heart of the district is made up of fast-growing communities in Kane and Kendall Counties, where farmland has given way to subdivisions and new residents don't necessarily have a lot of familiarity with local politics. The territory is just the latest suburban Chicago district that's gone from reliably Republican to a potential toss-up."
the willingness of voters to vote for a democrat in what has been considered the reddest congressional district in the state seems to stem from three dominant factors: the economy, iraq and the issues surrounding the immigration debate. this wasn't a single issue election, and they couldn't be tied together with some broad, dramatic theme. foster dealt with them singularly with pragmatic proposals that placed him squarely in the moderate range inside il-14. his opponent hurled dramatic accusations at him instead of offering substantial plans for the future. while these accusations did find their way into the minds of some voters, others dismissed them as desperate campaign tactics. in the words of another candidate, they attacked him because he was winning.
5. organization. organization was where the foster campaign reigned supreme. despite the fact that republicans unleashed their vaunted 72-hour project, foster's campaign was ably prepared to compete in the special election environment. tom bowen, foster's campaign manager, spoke about his preparations for the special after the live blogging event held for foster. by networking extensively, the foster campaign built up the best campaign organization that democrats have ever seen in this congressional district. foster's appeal brought in democratic activists from pennsylvania and dc, from chicago, the northshore, from dan seals' campaign, melissa bean's campaign, jan schakowsky's campaign and scott harper's campaign (who brought in 120 volunteers to help out on election day). the effectiveness of foster's campaign organization promises future success in a congressional district that -- like melissa bean's -- will be competitive for years, perhaps even decades (depending on redistricting).
the influence of money in this race and the profound effectiveness of foster's campaign organization may be depressing to some progressives inside and outside the il-14. to those who feel this way inside the district i repeat what i've said all along: talk to bill foster. i may not know the man that well, but i understand perfectly his approach, and he will listen to all points of view from a respectful, perhaps even probing, perspective. do not expect other people to represent your point of view before him. and if he doesn't hear it, he probably won't consider it.
some local progressives have been mobilized by the quixotic appeal of john laesch. but the reality is, bill foster is your new DEMOCRATIC congressman. it's very unlikely that another democratic congressman (or woman) will emerge in the near future. he's it. foster's election offers democrats the unique opportunity to build and strengthen the local democratic party where you live. it's always easier to organize with someone from the party in power. foster's election should fulfill a dream we all share. but personal feelings can sometimes interfer in what should be our self-interests...