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Poll: Hastert Seat Could Flip

The House seat recently vacated by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is in danger of flipping to the Democrats in Saturday’s special election, according to a poll conducted this week for Roll Call.

In the poll of 517 likely special election voters, conducted by Survey USA exclusively for Roll Call on March 3 and 4, physicist Bill Foster (D) led dairy company executive Jim Oberweis (R) 52 percent to 45 percent. The poll had a 4.4-point margin of error.

Foster appeared to test particularly well with women and independent voters, who preferred him by a 3-2 margin. The survey also suggested Foster had locked down his party’s base, taking 97 percent of likely Democratic votes and perhaps stealing 10 percent of likely GOP votes.

In contrast, Roll Call’s poll suggested that 89 percent of likely Republican special election participants pulled the hypothetical lever for Oberweis, owner of a eponymous multi-state retail ice cream chain. The survey also showed that Oberweis drew dramatically fewer potential party switchers than Foster — just 3 percent.

Self-defined independents, who are expected to make up one-quarter of Saturday’s electorate, picked Oberweis 38 percent of the time in Roll Call’s hypothetical matchup.

The 14th district, in the suburbs and exurbs of Chicago, leans Republican, having given President Bush 55 percent of the vote in the 2004 White House election. But Democrats are increasingly optimistic about their chances there.

The results of Roll Call’s new automated poll are similar to field data from both parties that suggest fatigue among local voters stemming from four high-profile Oberweis runs for public office since 2002, campaigns that routinely turned fierce as Election Day approached.

Some political observers say that this cycle has been no exception.

The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, one of the nation’s most conservative, endorsed Foster on Monday, claiming that the Republican “sees public office as an opportunity to pick a fight.”

“This page is closer to Oberweis than Foster on several economic and foreign policy issues,” read the Tribune’s endorsement. “But we watched Oberweis in his races for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004, and for governor in 2006. We’ve watched this race for Congress. His campaign style has consistently been nasty, smug, condescending … and dishonest.”

Roll Call’s new survey showed that almost half of all likely special election voters have a negative impression of Oberweis, compared with 31 percent for the relatively unknown Foster. Forty-two percent of likely special election voters had a favorable impression of Foster, in contrast with 38 percent for Oberweis.

Of likely special election voters, 48 percent said they had a favorable impression of Hastert, who endorsed Oberweis during his contentious Republican primary battle with state Sen. Chris Lauzen.

A month-old Global Strategy Group poll for the Foster campaign showed the two candidates head-to-head. The poll, taken Feb. 6-10 of 525 likely voters, suggested 45 percent of likely voters preferred Oberweis, while 43 percent picked Foster.

The early February survey, which had a 4.3-point margin of error, showed that 41 percent of voters have an unfavorable opinion of Oberweis — 8 percentage points less than what Roll Call’s survey found.

By Feb. 24, according to a similar Democratic survey, Foster’s support among likely special election voters had increased to 45 percent, while Oberweis’ dipped slightly to 41 percent — a wash, considering the poll’s 4.9-point margin of error.

But Oberweis’ recent internal polling suggests the district’s electorate remaining loyal to the GOP. According to a McLaughlin & Associates survey of 550 special election voters obtained by Roll Call, Oberweis has overcome a 4-point deficit since late last month. The poll, which showed likely poll-goers preferred Oberweis 47 percent compared with 45 percent for Foster, was taken Feb. 28-March 3.

The survey had a 4.2-point margin of error. The memo provided to Roll Call did not list the candidates’ favorable/unfavorable ratings.

Both candidates have paid substantially out-of-pocket ahead of Saturday’s special general election. As of Wednesday evening, Oberweis had written his campaign checks totaling $2.34 million — a sizable portion of his $2.9 million in overall fundraising this cycle.

Oberweis has spent roughly $1 million on ad buys this cycle.

Foster had given his campaign $1.44 million this cycle, about two-thirds of his $2.12 million fundraising total. His campaign has spent roughly $1.44 million to date on direct-mail and television advertising.

High-profile Democratic politicians also could have an impact on the election. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a presidential contender, cut a TV spot for Foster this week. His favorable rating in the district was 49 percent, according to the Roll Call poll, compared with a 35 percent unfavorable rating.

But Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) had dismal numbers in the poll, and if Republicans can tie Foster to the governor that will help Oberweis’ prospects.

Survey USA’s analysts caution that the rare weekend election, a Land of Lincoln first, leaves many unanswered questions regarding who may actually show up on Saturday.

“In a low-turnout, stand-alone special election, held on a Saturday, it is difficult for any pollster to forecast turnout precisely,” Survey USA’s poll concluded. “A close contest is forecast, but motivated Republican voters may well hold this seat for the GOP.”

Although the 14th district has long been a GOP stronghold, both parties agree with Roll Call’s pollster that Saturday presents a recipe for many sleepless nights, with thin Democratic infrastructure in the former Speaker’s backyard and few ways to reasonably measure their chances. And Foster, who developed sophisticated get-out-the-vote software for freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) ahead of the 2006 elections, declined through his office to say whether his campaign has another GOTV trick up its sleeve.

Republicans, however, are sticking to the script.

“It’s a solidly Republican district … so if Republicans turn out , it’s a pretty safe bet [Oberweis] will win,” a Republican operative in Illinois said. “But it’s hard to tell because there is no precedent for a Saturday election … this is new territory here.”

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