Learning the Wrong Lessons From Ohio 2nd?

Posted August 11, 2005 at 9:34am

My dictionary defines “hubris” as “overweening pride or self-confidence” and “arrogance.”

Usually, those accused of hubris have been successful — so successful that they inflate their own importance and ability. But some Democratic activists, notably too many armchair political strategists on the Internet, are acting like winners when they haven’t won much of anything. [IMGCAP(1)]

The self-congratulations have been flowing ever since Democrat Paul Hackett drew an impressive and surprising 48 percent of the vote in the Aug. 2 special election in Ohio’s 2nd district.

Democratic Web loggers have been trumpeting their successes in that special election, claiming credit for injecting money into Hackett’s race, for getting the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to take Hackett’s bid seriously and for proving that a 50-state, 435-seat strategy is essential and can be successful.

To many of these self-appointed strategists, Hackett’s showing proves that Democratic nominees can compete in previously ignored districts.

“Things have changed dramatically since Tuesday,” one prominent Democratic blogger said only a couple of days after Hackett’s near miss.

Well, let’s all take a deep breath and see exactly where things stand after the Ohio 2nd special election.

First, the Democratic blogs deserve credit for raising funds for Hackett, who probably could not have raised enough money from the “usual suspects” (which include political action committees) to run a respectable campaign in a solidly Republican district.

Anybody who follows politics knows how important money is, and the Democratic blogs’ ability to direct campaign cash to their pet candidates makes them relevant for 2006. Democratic candidates and party leaders certainly will want to take advantage of the bloggers’ enthusiasm and cash (but mostly their cash).

Second, Hackett’s race may well be an aberration rather than a model for the future.

While bloggers see the race as an indication that dozens of previously ignored districts can be competitive next year, Ohio offered Democrats an unusual opportunity to ambush the Republicans — a situation that isn’t likely to exist in a large number of districts for the rest of the decade.

While Democrats are trying to create a national ethics message about Republicans, the situation in Ohio is like nowhere else in the country.

Every day, newspaper stories in the Buckeye State raise questions about Gov. Bob Taft’s judgment and Republican ethics. The governor’s job ratings are so low that he probably couldn’t be elected to another statewide office, which is one reason why the DCCC’s late TV spot in the special election tried to tie Republican Congressional nominee Jean Schmidt to Taft.

Whatever President Bush’s problems, he doesn’t have a 19 percent job approval rating, which is what Taft had in one recent poll. And while ethics charges have been aimed at some Republicans in Congress, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), Rep. Bob Ney (Ohio) and retiring Rep. Duke Cunningham (Calif.), the national ethics environment simply doesn’t bear a strong resemblance to what we are now witnessing in Ohio.

Third, Republicans in Ohio’s 2nd district were unusually divided after a bitter primary to choose a nominee for the special election — a situation that is not likely to occur in many places next fall.

Anti-tax, “pro-growth” Republicans didn’t like Schmidt at all — the Club for Growth preferred any of the three other major GOP contenders and ran a last-minute television spot hammering Schmidt — and one conservative group even ran ads after Schmidt won the primary that urged fiscal conservatives to sit out the special election rather than back her in the general.

Fourth, Hackett was a particularly strong candidate, especially for someone who had never run for office. But while his strong showing now has party operatives and armchair quarterbacks searching high and low for veterans to run in other districts, it is far from clear that Hackett’s military service in Iraq was crucial in his showing.

Democrats recently ran another candidate with an extensive military record — Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) — and he fell short when Republicans raised questions about his military service and, more importantly, forced voters to line up along partisan lines.

Finally, Schmidt ran a poor campaign that lacked a message and that relied on a campaign team short on experienced, proven strategists. She also made the crucial error of not attacking her opponent, or at least not defining him. Few serious GOP candidates next year will run efforts as inept as Schmidt’s.

Some bloggers are talking about “bleeding the Republicans dry” by investing in dozens of Democratic challengers, forcing the National Republican Congressional Committee to spend money on races they could otherwise ignore.

There are two problems with that strategy. First, it is based on a faulty conclusion drawn from the Ohio special election. Republicans won’t need to spend money in most of those contests, because those challengers won’t seriously threaten most of the GOP nominees. And second, Democrats simply won’t have the money to invest in a hundred or more races around the country.

Hackett’s showing in the special election may help woo a few strong candidates into Congressional races who otherwise wouldn’t have run, and may convince some contributors to writer bigger checks for more candidates than they ordinarily would have. It may also help generate more enthusiasm among Democratic activists nationwide. But unless the national circumstances come to resemble what happened in Ohio 2, the lessons of the special election will have limited application in 2006.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.