Like the Wizard of Oz instructing Dorothy and her companions to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, the National Republican Congressional Committee wants people to ignore what voters in Illinois' 14th Congressional District did in the ballot booth last weekend.
In a special election to fill the remainder of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's term, political newcomer Bill Foster defeated GOP candidate Jim Oberweis. That's not the way it was supposed to happen.
Hastert announced his retirement midterm, presumably to give a fellow Republican the advantage of running as an incumbent in November when a downdraft from the presidential election could sweep away additional, marginal GOP seats. But Illinois' 14th is hardly what you could call a marginal Republican district.
Hastert, the longest-serving GOP House speaker in history, prevailed there in 10 elections. Losing his seat, an aide to a top GOP lawmaker told The Politico, "is like the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad for Republicans."
George W. Bush garnered 55 percent of the vote in 2004. Adding to the political symbolism, Ronald Reagan's birthplace in Tampico lies within the district. A Democrat hadn't won a House seat in the area since 1974, and then only for one term.
So an NRCC press release was keen to note, "The one thing 2008 has shown is that one election in one state does not prove a trend." In 1974, Democratic victories in special elections presaged the Watergate landslide in which Democrats picked up 49 House seats and four Senate seats.
The best way to stop a trend is to prevent it from starting in the first place. That's why the NRCC felt compelled to spend $1.2 million which, as The Politico pointed out, was nearly one-fifth of its entire cash on hand to secure an Oberweis victory in what should have been a safe district. Now that Toto has pulled back the curtain, the NRCC says it was just another election.
Can you read too much national significance into Foster's victory? Of course. As the Wall Street Journal's John Fund observed, the NRCC's media buys were poorly received in Illinois. And a bitter primary battle with a popular state senator left many conservatives disenchanted with Oberweis.
Still, there's plenty for a presidential candidate who has his own problems with the conservative wing of the party to worry about and for a slew of Republican congressmen who face re-election in territory far less hospitable than Illinois District 14 was presumed to be.
Three issues motivated voters who punished GOP candidates at the polls in 2006: the war in Iraq, profligate spending by the GOP-led Congress and ethics scandals that touched disproportionately on the former GOP majority that Hastert led.
The surge has produced a measurable improvement in the security situation in Iraq, a development indispensable to the political vitality of John McCain. That situation is still tenuous, however, and the war remains deeply unpopular with the American people.
The Democratic leadership isn't remotely close to fulfilling campaign promises about restoring fiscal accountability in Washington. Yet with the exception of McCain and a few colleagues, such as Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint and Reps. Jeff Flake and Jeb Hensarling, Republicans in their newfound status as the opposition minority seem incapable of differentiating themselves from Democrats on pork barrel spending.
The Eliot Spitzer scandal has temporarily managed to shift the ethical spotlight to Albany away from Washington and Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., who was indicted last month on 35 counts of extortion, wire fraud, money laundering and other charges. But there may be more bad news for Republicans, as the FBI continues its investigation into possible fraud and theft by the former treasurer of the NRCC.
Eight months is a political eternity. Today's GOP troubles may melt like lemon drops by November. But the results of Illinois' special election is a warning that Republican hopes of holding on to the White House, let alone regaining seats in Congress, may be somewhere over the rainbow.