Cincinnati Enquirer - GOP squeaker energizes Dems

Thursday, August 4, 2005

(Cincinnati Enquirer)

Schmidt- Hackett race could be catalyst
GOP squeaker energizes Dems By Howard Wilkinson, Enquirer staff writer and Malia Rulon, Enquirer Washington Bureau Democrats lost Ohio's 2nd District congressional election Tuesday night, but it was hard to tell, given their excitement and their warning that the surprising closeness of the race could mean big changes ahead in Republican-run Washington and Columbus. Don't get too excited, Republicans countered. Special elections can't be compared to regular elections because they involve much lower voter turnout and a much shorter time to get the message out to voters. In a race watched by the nation, Republican Jean Schmidt beat out Democrat and Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett 52 percent to 48 percent. That was a surprisingly narrow margin in a district where President Bush won with 64 percent in November and former Rep. Rob Portman regularly garnered 60 percent to 70 percent of the vote. Democrats in Washington and Columbus Wednesday talked up the results - with almost the same talking points. Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean called the race a "wake-up call" for Republicans. "The culture of corruption they've brought to Washington is on its way out." In Ohio, state Democratic Party Executive Director Michael Culp echoed that, saying Hackett's strong showing sends a message: "Ohio voters are getting tired of the culture of corruption.'' "If voters in this strong Republican district can do what they did Tuesday, then it is pretty clear that there is a real hunger for change in Ohio,'' Culp said. Ohio Republican Party spokesman Jason Mauk conceded that the race was a "wake-up call" to Republicans, reminding them that Ohio remains a competitive, two-party battleground state. But the results do not necessarily mean that there is any seismic shift in Ohio politics on the horizon, Mauk said. "The environment for this election was different from a normal general election,'' Mauk said. "Jean Schmidt came out of a bitter primary campaign with very little time to unify the party. There was a tight time frame. No time to heal any wounds.'' On voters' minds Exactly what voters were trying to say is not so easy to discern. Only one in four registered voters turned out. There were no exit polls. As much as the Democratic party was heartened by Hackett's strong showing, some voters interviewed by The Enquirer Tuesday as they left 2nd District polling places said they voted for Hackett precisely because he did not sound much like the typical Democrat. Hackett, an Indian Hill lawyer, ran as a straight-talking pro-gun family man. But what helped him most was that, although he opposed the Iraq war, he was an Iraq war veteran - the first to run for Congress. Matt Bechtel, a county planner from Mount Washington, said he voted for Hackett "because he doesn't follow the party line.'' "I think he would make a good leader in Congress because he has seen what the war is and can give the country a good perspective,'' Bechtel said. At the Madeira Municipal Building Tuesday, Karla Balskus said Hackett's opposition to the war was one of the principal reasons she cast her vote for him. "He seems to be an independent thinker,'' Balskus said. "It would be a change.'' In Waverly, at the far eastern edge of the district, Waverly councilman Johnathan Clayter said: "I like that we're in the middle of this Iraqi war and he can bring some inside knowledge of it. "He was there. He is an Iraqi war veteran. He knows what they need." Al Tuchfarber, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, said the shorter time period in which the special election played out helped Hackett because it kept many voters from learning the details behind the campaign ads they saw on TV. "His own commercial starts out with a Republican president. It's my belief that the mass majority of voters did not know his feelings toward the war and the president," Tuchfarber said, adding that the Hackett commercials were tremendously influential in the rural counties, which Hackett won. "The fact that he won there, I attribute almost solely to his military experience," Tuchfarber added, saying that the one lesson both parties can take away from the election is the advantage military veterans will have in any race. "Throughout American history, that's been true." Looking to '06 and '08 Because Ohio is a national bellwether - it was the state that decided the 2004 presidential race - the political parties were trying to figure out what the results could mean for Ohio's governor's race, congressional races and even the 2008 presidential race. Sarah Feinburg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party's wing for House races, said Hackett's performance in the heavily Republican district shows voters' dissatisfaction with the ethics scandals involving Gov. Bob Taft and Rep. Bob Ney, who has been linked with a tainted Washington lobbyist. "If I were a House Republican, I would have woken up to these election results incredibly worried about my 2006 race." Indeed, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which oversees the party's Senate races, came to this conclusion: "Schmidt Squeaker is bad news for Mike DeWine." Sen. DeWine, R-Ohio, is up for re-election to his seat next year, and he already has upset some of his conservative base for his participation in talks with Democrats to avert a judicial filibuster. Democrats say Hackett's showing shows that he's even more vulnerable. "If you just look at the areas where Hackett performed well, the fact that a Democrat won those counties, that sends a shot across DeWine's bow right off the bat," DSCC spokesman Phil Singer said. Singer declined to comment on whether the committee was talking to Hackett about running against DeWine next year. Ohio Reps. Sherrod Brown and Tim Ryan also are considering the race.

 

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