On Tuesday night a Democrat running in a Republican district nearly became the first Iraq-war veteran elected to Congress. The two traded leads throughout the evening in a surprisingly close finish. In the end, heavily favored Republican Jean Schmidt edged out Democrat Paul Hackett by a narrow margin of 52 to 48 percent. Schmidt finally pulled away as the votes were tabulated by hand in her home county after severe humidity prevented them from being counted by machine.
Liberal activists, particularly bloggers, did the heavy lifting for their candidate who only last week referred to President Bush as a “son-of-a-bitch.” And though Jean Schmidt will be representing Ohio’s 2nd district in Washington, it didn’t stop the Left from declaring victory.
Daily Kos founder and moderator Markos Moulitsas was early out of the gates calling Hackett’s electoral loss a political gain:
OH-02 saw the resurgence of the Democratic Party, the GOP had to spend $500K they hadn’t otherwise planned on spending, and a Democratic star is born (next stop for Hackett–statewide elected office). So much for “burying” Hackett…
The post-mortems will come in the coming days, but for now, I’m happy with what everyone accomplished in Ohio. It’s a new day for the Democratic party, one in which no Republican district is safe.
A post on the Huffington Post followed suit:
Hackett’s narrow loss in Tuesday’s special election in Ohio’s 2nd district is a clear-cut case study in the current state of American politics. But more importantly, it is evidence of the average American’s growing distrust of a business-as-usual approach to the war in Iraq.
It would be easy to write off these statements as emotional reactions coming from the fringe of Democrat politics. However, on Wednesday evening Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean sent a fundraising letter to supporters that used Hackett’s story at the top of his pitch:
This unprecedented result shows that Americans are hungry for change. In the words of one political analyst, Hackett’s performance in supposedly safe Republican district means that something is ‘very, very wrong’ for Republicans in 2006.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel followed Dean’s lead in praising Hackett’s effort as a prelude to improved liberal fortunes in 2006.
But was Ohio’s special election really a barometer forecasting a great Democrat resurgence in next year’s elections? Or was it simply an interesting anecdote to the summer doldrums of Washington politics?
National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Ed Patru tells NRO that the facts of the story have been exaggerated, “The Republican won. Despite the national media attention and Democrat focus on increased turnout, it was still a 29 percent turnout. The history of special elections tends to be closer than regular year contests.”
As Patru explained, recent special elections in Louisiana’s 1st District, Pennsylvania’s 9th District, Virginia’s 4th District, Oklahoma’s 1st District, and Texas’s 19th District have ended with similar results: Both candidates battle to a near draw. But in the following year’s regular election cycle, the districts returns to being heavily Republican.
And as it turns out, many of those same Democrats singing Hackett’s tune weren’t there when he needed them most. “If Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel think last night’s race was a referendum on President Bush’s Iraq policy, ask them why neither contributed money to Paul Hackett,” Patru said.
What’s more, Jean Schmidt was not exactly the dream candidate of the conservative base that makes up Ohio’s 2nd district. During her June primary against ten other Republican candidates, Schmidt was the recipient of an attack ad from the Club for Growth, who criticized Schmidt for supporting tax increases. Even after Schmidt’s victory over Hackett, Club for Growth President and former House Republican Pat Toomey told NRO, “This is a conservative district so I’m disappointed the race was as close as it was. I hope Jean will represent the district in the same conservative, pro-growth fashion that Rob Portman did. We will see.”
There were other factors contributing to Schmidt’s lukewarm performance. Widespread speculation is that Schmidt failed to coordinate her efforts with the NRCC, refusing to return campaign phone calls or even providing basic information about her campaign staff. She also took unusual steps in the public arena, attaching herself to unpopular governor Bob Taft and delivering speeches on ethanol to suburban voters. There are also reports that some of Schmidt’s primary foes encouraged voters to sit out the election in hopes that Schmidt would lose allowing them to challenge Hackett in 2006.
Despite all this, Schmidt won her race and is headed to Congress. In fact, Schmidt placed better than 7 of Ohio’s other 17 House members fared in their initial runs for Congress. Still, what about those dominating victories by Rob Portman over the last half decade? As it turns out, Portman’s victories in 1998-2004 all came against the same unheralded candidate, Charles Sanders. The fact that Portman’s margin of victory over Sanders increased with each cycle only makes sense.
In 2002, Sanders received 47,618 votes. In comparison, Paul Hackett brought home 54,401 votes Tuesday night. Jean Schmidt may have found much less enthusiasm than Rob Portman, but for all their efforts and money, Democrats gained a grand total of 6,783 votes.
Paul Hackett ran a strong campaign. He is an Iraq-war veteran, a proud member of the NRA, featured President Bush prominently and positively in his two major campaign ads, and criticized Schmidt for supporting tax increases. These are not exactly the foundations of the Democrat-party platform. And while liberals are entitled to feel good about Hackett’s effort, they will have to start winning actual elections before it can be said the political winds have shifted against President Bush and the war in Iraq. In the meantime, another Republican is going to Congress.
–Eric Pfeiffer writes the daily political “Buzz” column on NRO.