A few weeks ago, I wrote a column stating that Massachusetts could well send a Republican to Congress. I thought the combination of a divisive primary for the Democrats combined with a strong Republican candidate running against a Congress with low approval numbers could set the stage for a strong Republican showing in Massachusetts’ Fifth District, which went for Senator John Kerry over President Bush by more than fifteen points in 2004.
With Republicans’ brand name at a low and Democrats supposedly in the driver’s seat, such speculation may have seemed absurd to beltway pundits, who paid little attention to the race. But on Tuesday the people spoke, and what they said was wholly at odds with the common impression of an electorate wholly disenchanted with Republicans and ready, nay eager, to hand the reigns of government over to the Democrats.
Lt. Col. (ret.) Jim Ogonowski came surprisingly close to defeating Niki Tsongas, wife of the late Senator Paul Tsongas. With all the votes counted, Tsongas’ margin of victory was about 7,000 votes out of about 105,000 votes cast, a margin of victory of roughly five percent. While this is indeed the most Republican district in the state, that title is somewhat akin to being the most Democratic district in Nebraska. 85% of the voters are either Democrats or Independents. And Col. Ogonowski was outspent 3-1.
Nonetheless, the result was Republicans’ best showing for a house race in the district since 1990, when ethically-tainted incumbent Chester Atkins nearly lost re-election, and since Republican Paul Cronin defeated John Kerry 53%-45% in 1972 before that. Indeed, this was the first time a Republican earned more than 45% of the vote in any Massachusetts House race since 1996.
Now, a person who wins a congressional seat by a single vote is called the exact same thing as a person who is unopposed for a congressional seat: a Member of Congress. The short term takeaway is that Niki Tsongas won, and will likely have this seat for a relatively long time. But the race nonetheless has some important lessons for 2008 nationwide, where the playing field will be substantially friendlier to Republicans than this district.
The takeaway is simple. People are not angry at all Republicans. They are, however, absolutely furious with Washington D.C. Congress’ latest approval rating sits at 11%. In the latest Harris Poll, 29% of respondents stated that they believed Democrats in Congress were doing a fair or poor job. Republicans did worse, with only 19% giving a favorable response, but the bottom line is that, for most people, the fury at Congress is bipartisan. This doesn’t remind this longtime election watcher of 2006 redux. Rather, it stretches back to my dimmest political memories, from 1990-94.
Because of this general loathing of Washington right now, the best thing that Republicans have going for them — arguably the only thing — stems from a decision then-Governor Bush made 7 years ago, when he chose former Representative and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney as his running mate. In the next year, the MSM will breathlessly remind voters how difficult it is for a political party to win a third term as President. But the reason for this is that Vice Presidents are usually running for that third term, and they are usually trying to extricate themselves from the shadow of an unpopular President.
Because George Bush chose a man who would not run to succeed him, Republicans have something of a clean slate in the upcoming election. In a year where voters do not like Washington, that is doubly important. The lack of a well-defined movement conservative in the race is one of the things that aids a party that is presently in need of distancing from President Bush. Consider the following attributes of the Republican frontrunners: Mayor Rudy Giuliani lacks Bush’s social conservatism and ties to the Christian Right. Governor Mitt Romney hails from Massachusetts, of all places. Fred Thompson is an eloquent speaker with a populist streak. Most importantly, all three hail from outside the beltway. The one inside-the-beltway candidate, Senator John McCain, is so famously at odds with his party that he is considered an outsider by many, even if he has spent over twenty years in Congress.
Compare this with the Democrats, who offer five Senators (two of whom have been in Congress since I was in diapers). The most plausible outsider, Governor Bill Richardson, is failing to gain traction, while Senator Barack Obama daily builds the voting record that has kept America from electing a Senator as President since 1960. Whomever the Republicans nominate should be able to tie the Democrats’ nominee to Washington DC, and run effectively against them.
While Republicans run outsiders for the open seat for President, Democrats in Congress are celebrating their ability to keep most of their incumbents from retiring in 2008. In a normal year, this indeed would be a very good thing. But in an anti-incumbent year this is far from a good thing. Republicans are emptying out the seats of Washington insiders in an anti-insider year, while gaining the opportunity to run against entrenched Democratic incumbents.
We can speculate about whether Democratic turnout was really depressed or how the issue agenda played into Ogonowski’s near-win. And speculation based on special elections is dangerous in general; obviously Stephanie Herseth’s win in South Dakota in 2004 didn’t portend a great Democratic year any more than Bill Greene’s win in Manhattan portended a landslide Republican victory in 1978. But the bottom line is that Ogonowski’s strategy of running as Joe Sixpack against a Washington establishment that was out-of-touch with the average American’s needs paid outsized dividends in this district, and nearly catapulted him to a shocking victory. Republicans should take heed; if they do, Democrats should have something to worry about.