In last Tuesday’s special election to succeed Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Republican Jean Schmidt edged Democrat Paul Hackett, 52 percent to 48 percent.
But even in defeat, Hackett managed to accomplish a feat of historic proportions.
[IMGCAP(1)] Just nine months ago, voters in the 2nd gave a commanding re-election victory to President Bush, 64 percent to 36 percent. That means that Hackett exceeded the vote of the most recent Democratic presidential nominee in the district by 12 points.
Granted, he lost — a fact that cannot be ignored. Still, how rare is it to run so well in such alien territory? For someone who began the race in almost total obscurity — and with such little time to prepare — it’s essentially unheard of, at least in recent political history.
A couple special elections since 1997 merit comparison. In 1998, Republican Mary Bono succeeded her late husband, Rep. Sonny Bono (R), in a special election. She ran 15 points better in the district than Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole did two years earlier. But Bono’s widowhood and her late husband’s celebrity easily explain that result.
Last year, Democrat Ben Chandler won a special election by 13 points more than Democrat Al Gore won in his Kentucky district in 2000. And in a South Dakota special later that year, Democrat Stephanie Herseth outpaced Gore’s vote by 13 points. While both were impressive victories, Chandler and Herseth were scions of major political families in their state, and both were well known statewide (Chandler as the state’s attorney general, Herseth as an unsuccessful at-large House candidate less than two years earlier). These factors undoubtedly aided their victories.
A race that closely mirrored Hackett’s is the contest to succeed longtime Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) in 2001. Democrat Scott Conklin, like Hackett, lost, but he scored 10 points more than Gore did in the district the year before. Conklin did better than expected in large part because voters felt ambivalent about the circumstances of Shuster’s resignation, which appeared to be timed to give his son Bill an advantage in succeeding him. Bill Shuster did win, but much more narrowly than expected.
And while it’s fairest to compare the Ohio special to other special elections, it’s also rare for House candidates in general to outpace their district’s “core” vote by more than 12 points.
A look at 10 House candidates who won office in “alien territory” during the past decade — that is, in districts in which the opposite party’s presidential candidate won easily — shows that only three winners exceeded their party’s presidential vote by more than 12 percentage points in their initial election to Congress. And each of those three merit big asterisks.
Reps. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Herseth exceeded the most recent Democratic presidential candidate’s vote in their districts by 25, 25 and 13 points, respectively. But all three are part of statewide political dynasties — something that Hackett most certainly was not.
We could not locate any other sitting Member of Congress who exceeded their party’s most recent presidential vote by 12 points or more in their first election. Five Members — Reps. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), Charlie Melancon (D-La.), Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) and John Salazar (D-Colo.) — all won their seats with totals that were 7 to 11 points better than the party’s last presidential vote.
So Hackett’s feat was rare. But how does it rank with fabled special elections that were harbingers of major political change?
During the past three decades, four special elections — three for the House and one for the Senate — are generally credited with being early warning signals of major political shifts. And in none of them did a candidate exceed expectations by as much as Hackett did.
In 1991, appointed Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) won the right to complete the term of the late Sen. John Heinz (R). He took 55 percent of the vote over former Gov. Richard Thornburgh (R) — 7 points more than 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis had done in the state. It was seen as an early sign that the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, might be more vulnerable than his post-Persian Gulf war popularity suggested. Bill Clinton went on to unseat Bush the next year.
Two years later, in a special election to fill the seat of newly installed Defense Secretary Les Aspin (D-Wis.), Republican Mark Neumann narrowly lost to Democrat Peter Barca (and ultimately beat him by a similarly narrow margin in 1994). This was seen as an early signal of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
Gauging Neumann’s achievement is a bit trickier. On the surface, his share of the special-election vote exceeded President Bush’s 1992 score in the district by 14 points — a bit wider than Hackett’s gap over Kerry. But using the 1992 presidential tally is misleading. Because Independent candidate Ross Perot won 23 percent of the district’s vote that year, a more reliable measure of the district’s core Republican vote is probably Bush’s tally in the two-person race of 1988, which was 49 percent. And that’s precisely what Neumann received in the special.
The next year, 1994, a hotly contested special election was held to fill the seat of the late Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky.). In this one, Republican Ron Lewis defeated Democrat Joe Prather, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Lewis’ May victory — bolstered by an ad that morphed Prather’s face into Clinton’s — gained an enormous amount of attention, deservedly, for its predictive value about the 1994 midterm elections. But in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been such a shocker. While Lewis’ showing was 10 points better than Bush’s in the three-way race of 1992, he actually underperformed Bush’s 1988 tally in the district by 5 points.
That leaves one historic special election to vie for top honors with Hackett’s: the race to fill the seat of Rep. Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) after he was elevated to vice president.
The February 1974 contest pitted heavily favored Republican state Sen. Robert Vanderlaan against Democrat Richard Vander Veen. But in what became an early sign of the post-Watergate debacle for the Republican Party, Vander Veen won 51 percent to 44 percent. That was 12 points better than Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern had won in the district in 1972.
Twelve points is exactly the margin Hackett exceeded Kerry by in Ohio — meaning that he can share top honors with a race that political analyst Charlie Cook recently called “the upset of the decade.”
So what does it mean? Hackett’s status as an outspoken Iraq war veteran has led some to ascribe national significance to the contest. “Hackett saw huge gains, and it’s a reaction to whats going on in Ohio and the country,” said Jeff Rusnack, a Cleveland-based Democratic consultant.
But it’s far too early to say that the race will have the national predictive value of its famous predecessors. It was timed in August, it followed a brutal Republican primary and seems to have been greatly affected by the Ohio Republican Party’s recent spate of scandals.
“I don’t think you can reasonably compare it to much of anything,” said Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist in Ohio. “None of the other races was held in a post-2004 mind-set, in which essentially hundreds of members of the Michael Moore fan club airlifted into the district.”
Still, fluke or not, Hackett pulled off a remarkable feat for someone lacking a storied political pedigree. It’s something to savor as he licks his wounds — and perhaps ponders his political future.