A political “earthquake” happened when Bill Foster won the special election to serve out former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's term in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District. But that “earthquake” was merely the harbinger of the tectonic shift in American politics that ...
A political “earthquake” happened when Bill Foster won the special election to serve out former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's term in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District. But that “earthquake” was merely the harbinger of the tectonic shift in American politics that could take place over the next two years.
An historic opportunity exists for progressives to create a generational political realignment in America of the sort that happened in 1932 with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and once again in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. Illinois could lead the way.
Realignments of this type involve two major components. On the one hand, they require the creation of a replicable electoral majority. On the other, they require a shift in the value frame for political debate – a shift in what is considered political “common sense.”
Fundamental political realignment does not require us to move to the center. It requires that we move the center in a progressive direction.
In the March 8th special election, Bill Foster did just that. Special elections are normally very tough for Democrats running in districts with high Republican performance. Turnout is normally low, and that typically bodes well for Republicans who can count on the support of upscale voters that are always more likely to go to the polls.
The 14th District has a very Republican history, having been represented by Dennis Hastert for over two decades. Hastert never won by less than 64%.
Yet Foster won a convincing 53% to 47% victory.
Foster didn’t win by offering a “Republican lite” platform. To the contrary, he came out strongly against the Iraq War, against any attempt to revive the Bush program to privatize Social Security, in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, for universal health care, and against tax breaks for millionaires.
There is no doubt that on a personal level, Foster is the perfect candidate for the exurban 14th District. His professional, non-politico style and his history as a physicist and successful businessman are big assets. And of course the demographics of the 14th have shifted too. Latinos, South Asians, and other minorities make up an increasing percentage of the population as former city dwellers have moved into the district.
Foster’s ability to fund and execute an excellent campaign was obviously a critical factor.
But there is no mistaking that the ideological ground has also shifted. Progressive positions on the economy and foreign policy are popular in the 14th District – as is the likely Democratic Presidential standard bearer, Barack Obama – who strongly endorsed Foster. In fact Obama made the final appeal for Foster in his closing campaign commercial.
It is entirely possible that this pattern will be replicated this fall in two – and potentially up to four -- additional Republican-held Congressional Districts in Illinois.
Dan Seals has enormous momentum in his campaign to defeat incumbent GOP Rep. Mark Kirk in the north suburban 10th District. Kirk marched in lockstep with President Bush when it came to his failed “trickle down” economic policy, and has been one of the leading cheerleaders in Congress for the Iraq War and neo-con foreign policy in general.
Kirk’s positions are completely out of step with the heavily anti-Bush North Shore. Seals, who lost the off year election to Kirk by 53% to 47% vote, is an articulate, energetic and attractive candidate.
Republican Jerry Weller who represents the Southwest suburban 11th District is one of a flock of Republicans who have decided to abandon ship rather than run for reelection this term. Democratic State Sen. Debbie Halverson has an excellent chance of taking this seat. In fact, the Republican candidate who won the February primary has dropped out of the race and, as of publication, local Republican Committeemen have not yet chosen a new opponent.
Republican Congressman Peter Roskam barely beat out Iraq War vet Tammy Duckworth in 2006 to represent the west suburban 6th District. This time he is being challenged by Colonel Jill Morgenthaler. If Obama is the Democratic Presidential nominee, that could bring out a wave of young and minority voters that could sweep Roskam away as well.
Then there is the 18th: the Peoria-centered district now represented by Republican moderate Ray LaHood. He too has decided to leave the Republican minority in Congress for greener pastures. A strong Democratic campaign with Obama at the top of the ticket could propel Democratic candidate Jim McConoughey to victory in this central Illinois district.
Not long ago – throughout the 70’s and 80’s -- Illinois was considered a swing state like Ohio. Since 1992, the state has voted reliably for Democratic presidential candidates,. But until recently its Congressional delegation was split down the middle. In fact, after the 2002 redistricting, Illinois had a Senator from each party and its delegation in the U.S House was made up of ten Republicans and only nine Democrats.
With the victory of Barack Obama for Senate, Melissa Bean in the 8th District and Foster in the 14th, Illinois now has two Democratic Senators and 11 Democratic U.S. Representatives.
After this fall, it is possible that only four Republicans will remain in the Illinois Congressional Delegation. Now that’s political realignment.
If it happens, effective Democratic campaigns, solid political organizing, and good candidates will all contribute. But the foundation for this realignment is built on the fundamental fact that the right-wing economic and foreign policies enacted by the Republicans over the last 30 years have failed to make our people safer or more prosperous.
Illinois Republicans are finding out that that Abraham Lincoln was right: “You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.