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Republicans Avoid a Catastrophe in the Buckeye State

For those of you who thought my July 18 column on the Ohio GOP’s problems was an exaggeration, we now have evidence that transcends polling. We have votes. And if you are a Republican, the picture is very, very ugly.

Former state Rep. Jean Schmidt’s narrow 52 percent to 48 percent victory over Democrat Paul Hackett in this week’s Ohio 2nd district special election certainly is a warning to Buckeye State Republicans about the party’s prospects next year. [IMGCAP(1)]

By all measures, Schmidt ran a pretty terrible campaign, and she was lucky to win. She bears a lot of the blame for the tightness of the race. Not all of the blame, but a lot of it.

I’m not quite sure why National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) allowed himself to be quoted in a press release as referring to her “impressive victory,” except that Reynolds had to say something, and it’s probably not politically correct to issue a release saying “hey, our nominee’s campaign really stunk up the joint.”

Schmidt was, as one Republican put it, an “accidental” nominee who won the GOP primary because the party’s top two candidates destroyed each other.

Both before and after the election, Republican insiders called Schmidt’s campaign amateurish, and she consistently refused to attack her opponent. In the race’s final days, the National Republican Congressional Committee blasted Hackett in a late TV spot as “a liberal Democrat” who favors a number of different tax increases. Those ads may well have saved Schmidt from an almost unimaginable upset.

National Democratic strategists wisely held their fire in the heavily Republican district, content to let Hackett emphasize his military experience in Iraq and his personal qualities in his paid TV ads. President Bush’s job approval in the district still stands at about 60 percent according to a recent GOP poll, making it unlikely that the special election’s close outcome was a referendum on Bush.

“We couldn’t afford three or four weeks of Republican TV calling Hackett ‘a Washington liberal’ and her ‘a Bush conservative,’” one Democrat told me. Republicans “would have put the race away early if the race had been about that.”

When the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did jump into the contest very late with an independent expenditure, the group’s terrific TV spot linked Schmidt to widely unpopular Gov. Bob Taft (R) by noting her support for “the largest tax increase in Ohio history” and for “Taft’s 27 percent gas tax hike on Ohio motorists.”

Hackett was an appealing candidate with an interesting story. Democratic strategists say that his Iraq experience got voters to consider his candidacy, but they dismiss the argument that his showing constitutes some sort of statement about the Iraq war.

While Hackett raised substantial funds from left-wing Internet sites, he campaigned more as a moderate. That’s why he ran as much as 20 points ahead of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 2004 presidential race performance in some of the rural, conservative counties in Ohio’s 2nd district.

Democratic insiders believe that voters saw Hackett as a vehicle for change, and that the ethics environment — what Democrats like to call the culture of corruption in Columbus — was a crucial part of that equation.

“This election showed that if we have a candidate who fits the district and is running against an ethically challenged, typical politician, we are going to be able to compete in places that normally wouldn’t be on our radar screen,” DCCC Executive Director John Lapp argued.

Democratic strategists believe Hackett’s showing proves that their candidates, both in Ohio and elsewhere, can successfully run against GOP ethics, thereby widening the playing field to districts they haven’t contested for the past few cycles.

Republican strategists counter that they won’t have such weak candidates or poor campaigns elsewhere.

Schmidt’s poor campaign, combined with Hackett’s personal story and moderate message, turned a 20-point blowout into a squeaker. But Hackett would not have gotten as close as he did without the unintentional help of Taft, whose problems clearly have the potential to turn Ohio into a Democratic tidal wave next year.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.