(CNN) -- A Democratic victory in a special election for a conservative Louisiana district's congressional seat flew largely under the radar over the weekend as the party's protracted presidential race continued to dominate the headlines.
Democratic state Rep. Don Cazayoux on Saturday won a congressional seat that was long held by a Republican.
But for those charged with keeping the party's majority in the House, the victory was a powerful bellwether of what to expect six months from now when Republicans will be forced to defend 26 seats vacated by retiring members, along with a slew of other vulnerable seats.
State lawmaker Don Cazayoux defeated conservative Woody Jenkins 49 percent to 46 percent in the state's 6th Congressional District, which had been under Republican control since 1974.
For Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the race proved Republican tactics to nationalize local elections would fall flat in a year when economic woes and rising gas prices are pinching voters.
"House Republicans tried to nationalize this election. Don won by focusing on the concerns of LA-06 voters -- good paying jobs, affordable health care, and better education," Van Hollen said.
The national GOP and independent conservative groups poured more than $1 million into the contest in an attempt to tie Cazayoux to national Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Barack Obama, who is seeking his party's presidential nomination.
Republicans contend their ads were successful in tightening a race that was once separated by a wider margin.
"When Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi were introduced into this campaign, Don Cazayoux was leading by a large margin in the polls," the National Republican Congressional Committee wrote in a memo. "Since then, Republicans saturated the Baton Rouge airwaves in an effort to nationalize this contest and make the election about the real-life consequences of a Barack Obama presidency and a continued Pelosi-run Democratic Congress. In that time, Republicans made substantial ground.
"This election speaks to the potential toxicity of an Obama candidacy and the possible drag he could have down-ballot this fall."
But buoyed by Cazayoux's win Saturday and Illinois Democrat Bill Foster's successful campaign to replace former House Speaker Dennis Hastert two months earlier, national Democrats can't help but feel a trend is in the air.
"Losing a district Republicans have represented for more than three decades and George Bush twice won easily shows the peril House Republicans face in November," DCCC Press Secretary Doug Thornell said.
The DCCC says its views about 50 Republican seats in play this year, including more than half of those vacated by retiring lawmakers. Eight Democrats are also retiring, though the DCCC only views one or two of those seats as vulnerable.
Democrats charged with increasing the party's majority in the Senate also are in a cheerful mood. Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, has said November may be a "seminal election" that could establish a Democratic majority for years to come.
But it might be too soon for party leaders to break out the champagne.
Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report said Cazayoux's victory doesn't necessarily mean voters across the country are ready to reject Republicans in droves.
"You have to note that the Republicans had an extremely flawed candidate," Rothenberg said of Jenkins, a divisive former state lawmaker who lost a bruising Senate race in 1996 to Mary Landrieu.
Cazayoux also didn't exactly run on the Democratic platform. Navigating the conservative currents of his district, Cazayoux staked out traditionally Republican positions on several hot-button issues including abortion rights, gun control and immigration laws.
"He'd be attacked as a right wing conservative if he was running in Massachusetts," Rothenberg said.
But after a week in which gas prices and the president's disapproval ratings simultaneously reached record highs, Democrats have the edge at the ballot box this fall.
"It's still a change election with an unpopular president," Rothenberg said. "The Republican brand is in the toilet. It's worth looking at both the Illinois special and what happened over the weekend in Louisiana, and giving the Democrats some credit in that they are taking advantage of the mood."
The Louisiana race was also viewed as an early glimpse of how a possible Obama candidacy could affect races down the ticket.
Republicans maintain Cazayoux lost support after the party began running ads linking him to the leading Democratic presidential candidate who has battled a fresh round of incendiary statements from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"The early indication is it had some effect," Rothenberg said, "but it didn't have enough impact to change the outcome of who won and who lost." E-mail to a friend
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