Ohio 2nd: Fluke or Trend?

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005; 8:30 AM

Such is the state of the Democratic Party that some of its best news in a while came last week in the way of a defeat.

Democratic Party leaders were positively giddy about Democrat Paul Hackett's loss to Republican Jean Schmidt in Tuesday's special election to fill a seat left open in Ohio's 2nd Congressional District. The seat's former occupant, Republican Rob Portman, left in May to become the new U.S. trade representative. Portman won 72 percent of the vote in 2004, but Schmidt defeated Hackett by only a margin of about 4,000 votes, or 52 percent.

"The race in Ohio and the outcome was really a bellwether for the races to come [next year]," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said in an interview with Talking Points.

"Even in a district that Bush won by 30 points less than a year ago, the Republican candidate couldn't win an even 3 percent majority." Democrats would have been "thrilled" to have come within even 10 points of victory in that district, she said, adding that Hackett's close defeat underscores the party's optimism about next year's midterms.

The party has met most of its candidate recruitment goals in competitive districts and raised a record $24 million for House candidates in the first half of the year, according to Pelosi. "People are tired of a rubber stamp congressman," she said. "They have serious questions about war, serious questions about abuse of power in Washington, serious questions about the economy. Republicans can diminish this all they want, but they do so at their own peril."

Even the godfather of the Republican revolution, none other than former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), agreed in very similar terms.

"There is more energy today on the anti-Iraq, anti-gas-price, anti-changing-Social Security and I think anti-Washington [side]," Gingrich told the Washington Post. "I think the combination of those four are all redounding to weaken Republicans and help Democrats. . . .  I don't think this is time to panic, but I think it's time to think. If we don't think now, then next September [2006], people will panic when it's too late."

A New Hope?

But is Hackett's strong finish really an affirmation that Democrats are on the path out of the political wilderness, as some party activists believe? Or, as many wary political observers argue, are the results more a reflection of voter dissatisfaction with an Ohio Republican Party plagued by a string of scandals? As with many things in politics, the truth may be somewhere in the middle.

Democrats view the Ohio race as a ray of hope in a bleak political landscape.

They see Republicans going into next year's midterms with a weakened president, an unpopular Congress, a middling economy, a controversial war in Iraq and high gas prices, all while fighting the tide of history. The president's party typically loses a significant number of congressional seats on average in six-year, midterm elections.

Furthermore, Democrats were cheered by the numbers coming out of the Ohio 2nd because the district encompasses seven counties in southern Ohio, including rural areas and large chunks of the Cincinnati metropolitan area -- the most Republican major metropolitan region in the nation, according to the National Journal. The GOP has dominated the district for decades, and registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by a more than 3-1 margin.

These are exactly the types of districts, Democratic Chairman Howard Dean and others have argued, that Democrats must become competitive in if they are to retake the House. A day after the loss, the Democratic National Committee issued a press release headlined: "Dean: Hackett Race Highlights Success of Fifty-State Strategy."

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