Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) warned fellow Republicans yesterday not to ignore the implications of the party's narrow victory in Tuesday's special election in Ohio, saying the public mood heading into next year's midterm elections appears to helping Democrats and hurting Republicans.
"It should serve as a wake-up call to Republicans, and I certainly take it very seriously in analyzing how the public mood evidences itself," Gingrich said. "Who is willing to show up and vote is different than who answers a public opinion poll. Clearly, there's a pretty strong signal for Republicans thinking about 2006 that they need to do some very serious planning and not just assume that everything is going to be automatically okay."
Gingrich's reaction came after Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran and vocal critic of President Bush's Iraq policy, came within 4,000 votes of upsetting Republican Jean Schmidt in the solidly GOP 2nd Congressional District in southwestern Ohio.
Schmidt and Hackett competed to fill a vacancy created when Rep. Rob Portman (R) resigned to become U.S. trade representative. Schmidt had won a contentious Republican primary and was heavily favored in a district that has been in GOP hands for nearly four decades. Bush won the district with 64 percent of the vote in November.
Republican apathy, dissatisfaction with Bush and congressional Republicans, a GOP scandal in Ohio, and Hackett's energetic, anti-Iraq campaign all may have contributed to keep the race closer than expected, according to strategists in both parties.
Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledged that the outcome fell far short of the party's desire, as expressed by Forti over the weekend, to bury Hackett in retaliation for attacking Bush. "We did not" bury Hackett, he said. "But it was a victory nonetheless."
GOP officials in Washington said the race carried no significant implications for the 2006 elections. They noted that special elections are often poor predictors of election trends and said they saw nothing to suggest real unhappiness with Bush or the GOP congressional leadership.
Jason Mauk, political director for the Ohio Republican Party, said: "To the extent that voters in that district were sending a message to the Republican Party at the state or national level, we have heard that message and we will continue to listen to their concerns."
Mauk said the economy, national security and a scandal that has touched Gov. Bob Taft and other Ohio Republicans may have contributed to the narrower-than-expected outcome. "There does seem to be a sour mood among the electorate at both the state and national level," he said.
Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin said the GOP should be nervous about next year's elections, given the gap between Bush's support last November and Schmidt's on Tuesday.
"We got a lot of warnings in '93 and '94 that voters were unhappy and dying to send a message," he said, recalling when Democrats lost control of the House and the Senate in 1994. "What happened in Ohio is very consistent with what we're seeing around the country."
Gingrich, the architect of the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, cited evidence that voter unrest is fueling Democratic hopes.
"There is more energy today on the anti-Iraq, anti-gas-price, anti-changing-Social Security and I think anti-Washington [side]," he said. "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 , people will panic when it's too late."
Some Democrats said the outcome spells trouble for Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who is up for reelection next year, but the party has not yet found a serious challenger.
In his campaign, Hackett used television ads to emphasize his service in Iraq, including images of Bush speaking about the value of military service, while in interviews with the news media he hammered the president and the war. His words against Bush and the war produced strong grass-roots support, and yesterday liberal bloggers said they helped raise $500,000 for Hackett, the bulk of his $750,000 campaign funds.
"We raised a ton of money for Hackett," said Bob Brigham of the Swing State Project site (www.swingstateproject.com), who served as "coordinator of the liberal blogosphere" for the Hackett campaign.
Brigham criticized the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for not giving Hackett early financial support. "They came in late, and it makes them look irrelevant in everyone's eyes," he said.
DCCC Executive Director John Lapp issued a statement defending the committee. Saying the DCCC would like to fund every House race, he said: "Resources are not infinite. That is why MyDD, the Daily Kos, and the larger blogosphere are so important. You are critical in the effort to expand the playing field well above and beyond the 30 or 40 districts typically in play."