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Interpreting the Ohio election

Posted by Richard on August 5, 2005

Democrats are jubilant over the close special election in Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District. Republican Jean Schmidt beat Democrat Paul Hackett, but only by 52-48%. Rob Portman (whose appointment as U.S. trade representative triggered the election) got 72% in the last election, and Bush got 64%. Predictably, Dems are seeing signs and portents:

"This very red district became a lot bluer," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The result shows "there is no safe Republican district," he said.

… 

"The Ohio race sends a much larger signal," said Washington-based Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.

Republicans are mumbling "special election, low turnout, unusual factors" — the latter appears to be code for the scandals surrounding Gov. Taft’s administration and Schmidt’s own ethical problems.

Here’s my take, based on an admittedly cursory look at the two campaigns. Hackett is a major in the Marine Corps Reserve who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. He was highly critical of Bush and the decision to invade Iraq, but he took a "finish the job" stance, and his service gave him more cred than the average lefty anti-war Dem.

Although the Deaniacs, Kos, etc., all worked hard for Hackett, he didn’t come across to Ohioans as a lefty, but as more of a centrist. He’s an NRA member and hunter, has a concealed carry permit, and opposed renewal of the "assault weapons" ban.

Schmidt, meanwhile, won a nasty 11-way primary battle largely because conservatives abandoned frontrunner Pat DeWine — partly over his marital problems and partly to punish his father, Sen. Mike DeWine, for selling out on the judicial filibuster issue. The RINO tag transferred from father to son. Schmidt is pro-life and pro-gun-rights, so lots of conservatives felt comfortable supporting her.

But Schmidt has a tax-and-spend, big government RINO history in the legislature. She made ethanol subsidies one of her major issues. The Club for Growth actively opposed her, and Ohio’s taxpayer watchdog group, Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, ran ads urging voters to boycott the general election.

The COAST ads seem to have worked spectacularly well among Republicans, judging from the comparative turnout numbers cited by Michael Barone:

… turnout is the key to winning elections. Turnout in 2004 was up 16 percent over 2000—a historic rise. John Kerry got 16 percent more votes than Al Gore, but George W. Bush got 23 percent more votes in 2004 than he did in 2000. …

The results in the Ohio 2nd go the other way. According to the latest results I have before me, 112,375 people voted in the special election. That’s just 34 percent of the 331,104 who voted in the district in 2004. Republican Jean Schmidt’s vote total was only 27 percent of Bush’s. Democrat Paul Hackett’s vote total was 46 percent of Kerry’s. Democrats did a better job of turning out their vote.

… 

In this week’s election, Democrats apparently were able to motivate their Bush-hating core to go to the polls. Republicans, who demonstrated such prowess at turning out their voters in November 2004, did not do nearly as well in motivating their base. … if I were Karl Rove or Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman, I would be thinking hard about how to motivate the Republican base.

There are a number of reasons having nothing to do with policy issues for the drop in Republican turnout. Sleaziness and scandals are always a big turnoff.

Nevertheless, I think this is the critical lesson to be learned from Ohio’s 2nd district:

  • When a Democrat is pro-gun, looks good in uniform, is at least credible on defense, and moves toward the middle, he gains more votes from the center than he loses from the left. 
     
  • When a Republican favors tax increases and big government, runs a lackluster, visionless campaign, and portrays herself as a "moderate centrist," she loses far more votes from the right than she gains from the center.

Rove and Mehlman had better pay attention to that lesson. You can bet Hillary will.

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