It’s a tale of two districts — and two special elections next Tuesday.
The seats in Ohio’s 5th district and Virginia’s 1st, which became open when Republican Members died earlier this year, should be slam dunks for the GOP. President Bush got about 60 percent of the vote in both districts in 2004, and both elections are going to be low-turnout contests that follow heated GOP nominating battles.
Yet some Democrats believe they can be competitive in both districts, even though their candidates have never held public office and are running against state legislators.
But so far, national Democrats are only putting their money where their mouths are in Ohio, where former university official Robin Weirauch (D) is taking her third stab at the seat. The Democratic nominee in Virginia is Philip Forgit, an Iraq War veteran and former elementary school teacher with a background that has proved successful in the region by candidates like Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.).
But while Democrats are bringing out the big guns for Weirauch, Forgit — along with some members of the Virginia Congressional delegation — are holding out hope that there’s still time for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to do the same in their backyard.
Popular Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) held multiple events with Weirauch over the weekend. The DCCC spent $157,000 on a negative ad buy against Weirauch’s opponent, state Rep. Bob Latta (R). The National Republican Congressional Committee responded with with $315,700 in negative ads, direct-mail and phone buys against Weirauch — which represents more than 10 percent of the NRCC’s current cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
What’s more, Weirauch has received contributions totaling more than $80,000 from almost 30 out-of-state Members or their political action committees in the past three weeks, according to federal election records. Ohio delegation members alone donated more than $17,000 from their campaign committees and PACs.
The amount of funding flowing into the ruby-red Buckeye State district has left many local political insiders, like Sandusky County Republican Chairman Adam Greenslade, scratching their heads.
“If the Democrats had a candidate like Paul Hackett [the Democratic nominee in a 2005 Ohio special election] running up here or another Ted Strickland-type candidate, then I could see this being in play and wanting to put some money in this race,” Greenslade said. “But I don’t see why you continue to throw money at Robin Weirauch. I just don’t get it.”
Unlike her Republican opponent, Weirauch has no legislative record to gauge her political positions, only statements and activities from her past two campaigns.
Weirauch’s background includes founding the local Humane Society, work as a community activist and most recently working for Bowling Green State University’s regional development department. Her campaign insists Weirauch is in the mold of Strickland, a former Congressman.
“I think what you would see with her is she is a practical person, like Gov. Ted Strickland,” Weirauch spokesman Brad Bauman said. “And I think that that the best and most appropriate characterization of where she is on the political spectrum is where Gov. Strickland is.”
One national Democratic insider pointed out that the Ohio race’s media market is significantly less expensive than the one in Virginia, 42 percent of which is in the Washington, D.C., market. Furthermore, the Ohio district is a blue-collar region reliant on manufacturing jobs. According to the insider, unions could be a strong ally to aid get-out-the-vote efforts in what most experts expect to be a very low-turnout election.
“I’ve heard that there are internal polls that show a 3-point race,” said Ohio Democratic consultant Dale Butland. “It would be shocking. If that district goes Democratic, then there would literally be no district in this state that would be safe for Republicans.”
A Republican insider with knowledge of the district said the special election “is easily within a 55-45” percent margin. “I think the DCCC knows that, otherwise there’s no way they would have put the money into it.”
The only public poll so far in the race showed Latta leading Weirauch 50 percent to 36 percent in early November. Weirauch’s showing in that poll was lower than 43 percent she received in her 2006 challenge to the late Rep. Paul Gillmor (R), who died in September.
National Democrats insist that the enthusiasm of Ohioans prompted them to throw money into the race.
“We saw the excitement of the people across the district, the Ohio Congressional delegation and Gov. Strickland about the Ohio special election and joined that effort,” DCCC Communications Director Jennifer Crider said.
In November, Forgit emerged from the Democratic nominating convention riding high on his party’s gains in the Virginia legislative elections, which gave Democrats control of the state Senate for the first time in a dozen years.
Though the 1st district is a Republican stronghold, Forgit and some Democratic strategists believed that the unusually short special election time frame combined with Forgit’s status as a veteran in a heavy military district, plus his credentials as an award-winning school teacher, might give Democrats a chance of stealing a seat with the wind at their backs.
Even if Forgit runs a competitive race but falls just short, some Democratic strategists said that result could be used to counter Republican excitement following the closer-than-expected October special election in Massachusetts where frontrunner Niki Tsongas (D) beat Republican Jim Ogonowski by just 6 points. After the Massachusetts election, the NRCC was quick to send out news releases claiming the “Democratic wave breaks” and that the right GOP campaign could be competitive in even the bluest of districts.
A month ago, race watchers in Virginia said Forgit probably would benefit from the state’s big-name Democratic politicians who could come to the district and the DCCC’s huge financial advantage over the NRCC.
But while Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), popular former Gov. Mark Warner — who is running for Senate in 2008 — and Webb all have been active in the1st district, the national party has not provided the heavy financial blitz that Forgit’s supporters were hoping for and some Republicans feared.
And it appears the DCCC isn’t going to employ an elaborate 11th-hour funding strategy. A DCCC source said this week that as of right now there are no plans to put resources into the race to replace the late Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R).
In the meantime, the NRCC’s independent expenditure arm last week spent almost $8,000 to produce an ad attacking Forgit and dropped $27,000 for anti-Forgit mailers on Tuesday. The NRSC also has spent more than $13,000 on phone banks to help the party’s nominee, state Del. Rob Wittman.
On Tuesday, Forgit said he appreciates the help he’s received from the DCCC so far but hopes the party does more.
“We hope the national party would see the unique and historic opportunity here and recognize the opportunity,” he said.
In an FEC filing on Monday, Forgit’s campaign reported a $5,000 contribution from Warner’s Forward Together PAC and a $1,000 contribution from Webb’s Born Fighting PAC.
Kaine is scheduled to headline a fundraiser over the weekend for Forgit and Warner, who has recorded a robocall for Forgit, is expected attend a rally for the candidate on Monday. On Tuesday, Forgit earned the endorsement of Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander and presidential candidate.
Another prominent Virginia Democrat who is lending heavy moral and financial support to Forgit’s campaign is Rep. Jim Moran, who in recent days cut a $5,000 check to Forgit from his leadership PAC.
Moran said in an interview on Tuesday that he disagrees with the DCCC’s decision to pull back from Forgit’s campaign.
“The fact is that’s a winnable race,” he said. “This is a damn good candidate.”
Moran said he planned to lobby DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) to take a second look before time runs out on what he said was an opportunity that probably won’t come again for a long time.
“Clearly every time we have taken on a Republican [in Virginia] in the last few years a Democrat has won,” Moran said. “Our state is changing. But maybe [the DCCC] just doesn’t believe Virginia 1 can turn Democratic. … It’s a Republican district now but it’s not enough of a Republican district that it’s not worth taking a shot. If this was four years ago or two years ago I’d say forget it but not today. But we’re running out of time, unfortunately.”