In the early summer of 2005, Democrats were despondent. They had just lost both houses of Congress for the seventh election in a row, had lost the Presidency to a man they loathed, and had not won more than 50 percent of the popular vote since 1976. Pundits were predicting the continued irrelevance and possible demise of the party.
But a funny thing happened to the Democrats on the way to the dustbin of history, in the Republican heart of the state that had been critical to President Bush’s 2004 reelection: Ohio. President Bush nominated Congressman Rob Portman from Ohio’s second district to be the United States Trade Representative. His southwestern Ohio district seemed safe for Republicans: President Bush had carried it twice with over 60 percent of the vote.
The district was not so safe, as it turned out. Republicans suffered through a divisive primary, where the third choice candidate eventually emerged victorious. Democrats coalesced around a military veteran who was pleasing to the base. President Bush’s poll numbers began to decline. The end result was that Rep. Jean Schmidt won a narrow 3.5 point victory in August of 2005. The close race in a heavily Republican district was the first bit of good news Democrats had received in a long time, and helped energize them and propel them to victory in the following year.
Republicans today are in the same state the Democrats found themselves in 2004. And there is a race on the horizon that could energize them the same way that Hackett’s near-victory energized the Democrats. You may think I am crazy for typing this, but Republicans have a shot at winning the special election for the Fifth Congressional district being vacated by Rep. Marty Meehan.
The Fifth District is grounded in the towns of Lowell and Lawrence. It was represented continuously by Republicans from 1895 to 1975. In 1972, John Forbes Kerry lost the race for the then-open seat in the district, becoming the only Democrat that year to lose an open district carried by George McGovern. Although Paul Tsongas defeated the Republican incumbent in the Democratic landslide year of 1974, Republicans have come close in the district a few times since, including a narrow four-point loss in 1990.
The district voted against Bush twice, but it is not as heavily Democratic today as it seems. Registration in the district is actually 55 percent independent, giving either party an opportunity to win. Former Republican Governor Bill Weld won the district with seventy percent of the vote in 1994, and carried it in his unsuccessful race against Senator Kerry in 1996. Former Republican Governor Paul Cellucci carried the district with 56 percent of the vote in 1998. Mitt Romney carried the district with a similar percentage in 2002, and current Democratic Governor Deval Patrick only narrowly carried the district in 2006, while he was sweeping the state by twenty points.
In other words, the right kind of Republican can win. And Republicans have a chance to win the October 16 special election because they have probably found the right kind of Republican. Jim Ogonowski is a 28-year Air Force veteran with deep ancestral roots in the Fifth District. His brother John was the pilot on American Airlines Flight 11, which was hijacked by al Qaeda and flown into the World Trade Center on September 11. In the wake of his brother’s murder, Lt. Col. Ogonowski took over his brother’s farm.
Democrats have settled on Niki Tsongas, the widow of former Representative and Senator Paul Tsongas as their candidate. Tsongas has not wowed the party. She stumbled through her primary with a 5-point victory against a late charge by Lowell City Councilor Eileen Donoghue. Tsongas is running her campaign from the standard liberal Democratic playbook, and is attempting to make the race a referendum against President Bush.
Lt. Col. Ogonwski is the perfect foil to such a campaign. Rather than attack the candidate, Ogonowski is running against an inept Congress. The theory behind his campaign is that Congress does not work for the people any more, and is too consumed with partisan bickering. Lt. Col. Ogonowski believes that the failed immigration policy in this country is a prime example of a government that does not work. In a state where in-state tuition for illegal immigrants is a contentious issue, the argument resonates.
In other words, Lt. Col. Ogonowski is running the classic insider-vs-outsider campaign. He paints Tsongas as someone who is a Washington insider — a portrait she has helped paint through her campaign themes and statements. Ogonowski has broken with the leadership of his party on a few issues, such as illegal immigration, to highlight his independence. This is a critical step in this heavily independent district. His campaign commercial “Broken” is well done, and highlights these themes.
There are more concrete signs that if Lt. Col. Ogonowski can raise enough money to stay on the airwaves, he can win the district. A recent SurveyUSA poll shows him trailing Tsongas by only ten points. As his anti-Congress message is heard, these numbers could close. After all, he is running against a Congress whose approval rating is presently eleven percent. And the Democratic base could be dispirited following another expected cave-in by their leadership on funding the war in September. The Tsongas campaign is clearly worried, as is illustrated by the fact that they have called in Bill Clinton to campaign for her.
As any high school student knows — or at least should know — Lexington and Concord were the first military engagement of the Revolutionary War. Concord is in the Fifth District, and Lexington is just outside of it. This battle of Concord is the first in what could be a long war for Republicans to take back Congress. Republicans should fight it to win.