On Oct. 16, voters in Massachusetts’ 5th district fired another shot heard round the world. This shot, fired more than 225 years after the famous first shot at the Battle of Lexington, came in the form of a surprise result in the special election to replace Rep. Marty Meehan (D). Pundits had expected a coronation for Niki Tsongas in this heavily Democratic district. Far from a coronation — and despite outspending her opponent 4 to 1 — Tsongas was held to 51 percent by first-time candidate Jim Ogonowski (R).
What happened? The answer is twofold. First, Ogonowski identified early on that centrist values, like putting results ahead of rhetoric, win. Even in districts that lean strongly to the left, Republicans can be competitive when they offer common-sense solutions to the challenges our country faces. Second, Ogonowski capitalized on widespread dissatisfaction with the direction in Washington, D.C. In 2006, Republicans paid a political price for voter discontent with their leadership, and it’s possible that Democrats could pay a similar price in 2008.
One thing is clear from both the 2006 midterms and from last week’s special election results: Voters are hungry for a fresh perspective, and for leadership in Washington that will fundamentally change the way business is done. In short, voters want change — and that’s exactly what Jim Ogonowski offered them. Instead of following the typical political playbook of the left and the right, Ogonowski focused his campaign on themes that unite voters of all political persuasions: eliminating wasteful spending, keeping taxes low, common-sense border security and, above all, fundamental reform in Washington.
While all of Ogonowski’s campaign themes played a role in his shocking success, it is clear that his message of reform is what resonated most with voters. This message of reform crossed party lines as he highlighted problems in both the Democratic and Republican parties in speeches, literature and television ads. Ogonowski was “not a partisan politician,” but was a farmer and a veteran — a Washington outsider who wanted to work with willing Members on both sides of the aisle. His message was powerful: Ogonowski was about results, not ideology, getting things done, not partisan bickering, and fixing Washington, not preserving the status quo.
His opponent, who was strongly associated with Washington politics as a result of her late husband — former Member and presidential candidate Paul Tsongas (D) — did nothing to distance herself from the insider tag. Tsongas trotted in a who’s who of the Democratic party, including former President Bill Clinton and current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to campaign for her. She proudly campaigned on her willingness to follow in lock step with the Democratic leadership no matter what the issue might be.
With a recent Reuters/Zogby poll showing that just 11 percent of voters approve of the job Congress is doing, and only 24 percent giving President Bush the thumbs-up, that Ogonowski’s principal message — change the system, make government work — resonated so strongly can hardly be a surprise. The real question now is whether politicians of both parties will listen, and whether Republicans in particular, who have been too prone to picking ideological fights to make a point, will take note.
2008 looks to be an election that will be decided by a decidedly unhappy electorate. The change theme will be a powerful one in next year’s elections up and down the ticket. Successful campaigns and candidates will recognize that it’s time for our elected officials to get back to providing pragmatic solutions. Successful campaigns and candidates should focus on issues and values that unite us. There is almost unanimity among the American electorate when it comes to curbing waste, stopping the partisan bickering and fundamentally reforming the way Washington does business. These centrist values will provide a powerful political punch given the current state of the electorate.
This special election was a shot heard round the political world. The only question is whether anyone in Washington was listening.
Charles Bass, a former Congressman from New Hampshire, is president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership.