MIDWEST: Wins by Obama, Bean Soothe Democrats

Posted November 3, 2004 at 3:48pm

In a sea of red Tuesday night, one of the few blue oases for Democrats was Illinois, where two-time challenger Melissa Bean (D) knocked off the longest-serving Republican in the House, 18-term Rep. Phil Crane.

The Land of Lincoln — which has turned increasingly Democratic in the past decade — also elected state Sen. Barack Obama (D) to succeed retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) with an overwhelming majority. With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Obama looked likely to break the 70 percent mark, leaving Republican candidate Alan Keyes with less than 30 percent of the vote — a stunningly low total for an open seat.

The lack of a competitive Senate race probably served to undercut Crane’s already precarious position. Bean chided the veteran lawmaker as a “bench warmer” and the “king of junkets.” In 2002, Bean held Crane to his lowest re-election percentage in a decade. She was able to build on her efforts this cycle and oust Crane with a comfortable 52 percent to his 48 percent

The pickup of a Republican seat in Illinois for Democrats was offset, however, by the loss of Rep. Baron Hill’s 9th district seat in Indiana. In another rematch, Hill lost to trucking company owner Mike Sodrel (R), who held the Democratic incumbent to 51 percent in 2002. And just as Democrats were even more committed to knocking off Crane this cycle, national Republicans also were even more excited this year about the prospect of defeating Hill.

With 99 percent reporting, Sodrel was edging out Hill by fewer than 1,500 votes. Libertarian Al Cox, meanwhile, garnered more than 4,500 votes.

Republicans also did well elsewhere in the Hoosier State, where 1st term Rep. Chris Chocola (R) won with a 9-point margin and five-term Rep. John Hostettler (R) beat back highly touted Democratic candidate Jon Jennings by 8 points. Both races looked like possible, if difficult, opportunities for Democrats at the beginning of the cycle. Chocola won the open seat in 2002 with only 50 percent. And Democrats recruited Boston Celtics scout Jennings, who was able to raise considerable cash, to run against Hostettler, a sluggish fundraiser.

In the end, though, neither seat proved competitive, and both were further boosted by up-ballot races. President Bush won Indiana handily, and his former Office of Management and Budget director, Mitch Daniels (R), ousted Gov. Joe Kernan (D) by a comfortable margin. The Republicans also took control of a state House narrowly held by the Democrats.

The rest of the Midwest went almost entirely as expected. In perhaps the last piece of good news for Democrats in the region, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) beat back a challenge by construction company executive Tim Michels (R), notching a comfortable 55 percent win.

Republicans seemed to give up on this race in the homestretch, only to change course and buy back $600,000 worth of television advertising. The GOP had originally planned to spend more than $1 million on television, however, after Michels was the surprise winner in the three-way primary.

Michels had attempted to use Feingold’s work on the campaign finance reform bill that bears his name against Feingold. But the two-term Senator remains popular in the state and was able to thwart a Republican pickup.

Outside of Illinois’ 8th district and Indiana’s 9th, the remainder of House races in the Midwest went as predicted.

Voters, as expected, bequeathed Illinois’ 3rd district seat from 11-term Rep. Bill Lipinski (D) to his son, Dan Lipinski (D). The seat is safely Democratic, and the younger Lipinski cruised to victory against 26-year-old political novice Ryan Chalada (R). The senior Lipinski announced he would not seek a 12th term well after the March primary but not before he had lined up support for his son among the Democratic committeemen who would then choose his successor.

Also as expected, Ohio Sen. George Voinovich (R) soundly defeated state Sen. and one-time House Member Eric Fingerhut (D). Voinovich beat the severely underfunded Fingerhut with 64 percent of the vote.

The Buckeye State had no competitive House races, and the only noise came from the 14th district, where GOP Rep. Steven LaTourette faced a feisty, if long-shot, challenger in 26-year-old Capri Cafaro (D). The campaign was expensive for both sides, if never really a serious challenge to the five-term House Member.

Cafaro’s family has made a fortune building shopping malls, and her ability to self-fund the race forced the GOP to put more than $1 million in LaTourette’s war chest. But in the end, Cafaro’s accusations of corruption on the part of the incumbent — she demanded that LaTourette recuse himself in the House ethics committee’s decision to pursue an investigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay because the Texas Republican’s PAC gave LaTourette $16,000 — were unable to even make this race close. The incumbent took 63 percent to Cafaro’s 37 percent.

Minnesota and Michigan went pretty much the same for Republicans.

Gopher State incumbent Reps. John Kline (R) and Mark Kennedy (R) were re-elected soundly. Kline faced Burnsville City Councilwoman Teresa Daly (D), who was able to collect only 40 percent of the vote to the incumbent’s 56 percent in the 2nd district. And Kennedy easily beat child safety advocate Patty Wetterling (D).