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The first test of the year

After massive gains in the U.S. House in November 2006, Democrats fretted about how to minimize seemingly inevitable losses two years later. Having pushed deep into “red” territory, it appeared likely Republicans would roll back some of those gains, just as Democrats did after the GOP’s big 1994 win. Fourteen months later, such worries appear unfounded, with Democrats justifiably confident of making additional gains.

The national mood remains strongly anti-Republican, and the National Republican Congressional Committee had only $2.6 million on hand after debts at the end of 2007, while its counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee banked a robust $33.8 million after debts.

Seeing the writing on the wall, House Republicans are fleeing Congress for cushy K Street safe houses. Twenty-nine have already either quit or announced retirement in anticipation of another bleak election year for the GOP — including former House Speaker Dennis Hastert in the Illinois 14th congressional district. Hastert, in fact, was so desperate to get out of Dodge that he left midterm, forcing his party to defend his seat in an unwelcome and tough March 8 special election.

On paper, the district would seem reasonably safe for Republicans.

President Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry (DMass.) 55-44 in 2004, and Hastert won easy races after his initial 1986 victory. Yet signs of weakness appeared in 2006, when Hastert suffered his worst showing ever, winning 60-40 against the unknown and vastly under-funded John Laesch. The west Chicago suburbs are trending Democratic, and the national picture remain sour for Republicans.

With his leadership post surrendered, Hastert called it quits, giving Democrats yet another chance at a pickup.

Last week’s Super Tuesday primary in Illinois delivered still more bad news for Republicans hoping to keep the seat. One hundred thousand primary voters selected the Democratic ballot, compared to 94,000 choosing the Republican one — an unprecedented development. Of those, 75,000 Democrats voted in the House primary compared to 77,000 in the Republican contest, which suggests the slightest of advantages to the Republicans. Yet that alone is amazing to consider, as the largest turnout for a Democratic primary in the district before this year was 20,000.

Democratic voters selected Bill Foster, a physicist who worked on the software used to discover the top quark. He’s also a wealthy businessman who self-funded to the tune of $1 million by the end of 2007. Yet that pales in comparison to the $1.7 million that his Republican opponent, Jim Oberweis, has pumped into his own campaign. Oberweis finally won a contested Republican primary after losing statewide primaries in 2002, 2004 and 2006, largely on the strength of vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric that resonates with much of the GOP’s base.

The Foster campaign is giddy over high unfavorables registered by Oberweis in internal polling due to be released Wednesday, and even more excited by an apparent statistical dead heat in a head-to-head match-up. Moreover, the Oberweis campaign emerged from a primary described by Illinois blogger Larry Handlin of Archpundit as “maybe nuclear.” The intra-party ill feelings have persisted postprimary.

Ultimately, the Foster campaign believes this race will be won on the issue of — surprise! — change. “The ‘change’ thing is a real phenomenon,” said Foster campaign manager Tom Bowen. “Bill is a scientist and a businessman, and he looks like change. Oberweis is such a familiar face in the neighborhood that people have already decided that he can’t bring change.”

If Democrats and Foster can capitalize on the discontent and yearning for change in this district, Republicans are headed for an even bleaker November than currently expected.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .