GOP Two for Two in Special Elections

There turned out to be nothing to all the press speculation that Democrats were going to win at least one of the two special U.S. House races last week. Republican state legislators Bob Latta of Ohio and Robert Wittman of Virginia, both considered strong conservatives, retained open districts held by now deceased GOP House members. Both won handily, and in Latta’s case, national GOP leaders said that his hitting hard on the issues of taxes, illegal immigration and abortion were pivotal to his triumph.

The Democrats had put particular emphasis on an upset in Ohio and fell short, so the results last week cannot give them too much hope for the presidential year that is almost upon us.

In Ohio’s 5th District, Latta won the seat his father Del had held from 1958-88 and that he himself lost the nomination for to the late Rep. (1988-2007) Paul Gillmor by 27 votes back in 1988. Gillmor’s death earlier this year necessitated the special election. This time, Latta rolled up 57% of the vote against Democrat Robin Weirauch—or about the support Gillmor garnered when he defeated her last fall.

Political scars from a nasty primary race with another conservative state legislator clearly hurt Latta. Coupled with a Democratic television campaign that tied Latta to disgraced former Republican Gov. (1998-2006) Robert Taft, Weirauch suddenly became a viable candidate. The Democratic hopeful also rallied blue-collar support by running as a strong protectionist in the mold of liberal Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. (Last fall, both Brown and Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland carried the 5th District, giving hope for an upset to Buckeye State Democrats.) Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama made a special appeal to his supporters in the 5th District to support Weirauch, and both Brown and Strickland campaigned hard for the Democratic nominee.

But Latta fired back, slamming Weirauch for supporting healthcare that would cover illegal immigrants. According to National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Ken Spain, “[Weirauch] had been a supporter of [Michigan Democratic Rep.] John Conyers’ HR 676, which would have provided universal healthcare for all those ‘residing in the United States’—not just ‘citizens,’ but those ‘residing’ and that could mean illegal immigrants.” Latta hit hard at the issue and Weirauch’s opposition to repeal of the estate tax—a powerful issue in a district with many family farms, according to the NRCC’s Spain.

The GOP hopeful also ran as an unabashed pro-lifer, “and that resonated in the 5th District,” Spain told me.

In Virginia’s Tidewater-based 1st District, Wittman’s campaign team privately told us two weeks ago that polls showed their man in a closer race than expected. The unpopularity of the Bush Administration and the fallout from a grueling, five-ballot convention battle were taking their toll on Wittman, they said.

But he won with more than 60% of the vote over Democrat Phil Forgit, a teacher and Iraqi War veteran, and independent Lucky Narain, also a veteran. In retaining the seat that fellow conservative Republican Jo Ann Davis held from 2000 until her death earlier this year, Wittman and his volunteer organization worked hard on voter turnout in an 18-county district that former Republican Sen. (2000-2006) George Allen carried handily last year while losing statewide to Democrat Jim Webb. In addition, the 49-year-old Wittman had a four-to-one spending advantage over Forgit as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee focused its financial fire more on the Ohio contest.