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For Republicans, A Ray Of Hope

By Reid Wilson

CHELMSFORD, MA - In a spartan office space, nestled above a flower shop just off Interstate 495, volunteers worked quickly to stuff envelopes on a recent Wednesday morning. The office, home to Jim Ogonowski's campaign for Congress, was packed with volunteers, and the candidate himself paced around like a big cat in too small a cage.

Ogonowski's campaign is decidedly uphill. He hopes to replace former Congressman Marty Meehan, in Massachusetts' Fifth District, who left to serve as Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, in his old district. To do so, Ogonowski will have to win a seat that gave the last two Democratic Presidential nominees 57% each, and one that proved a challenge to Meehan only in his first race, when he won with 52% in 1992.

But Washington Republicans are surprisingly enthusiastic about Ogonowski's chances, and while he remains an underdog to his opponent, Democrats are taking notice and working to protect against what could be a disaster for the new majority: An Ogonowski victory, or even a close race, could do for Republicans what Paul Hackett's narrow loss in a heavily Republican district in Ohio did for Democrats in 2005.

A farmer by trade, Ogonowski's family traces their roots in the district back more than a hundred years. His family owns three farms, one of which Ogonowski says he's still tending to, at four in the morning, before a typical campaign day begins. His family has a long tradition of military service, and on September 11th, his brother, like Ogonowski an Air Force veteran, was piloting a plane before it was hijacked by terrorists and flown into the World Trade Center. His roots, and his personal story, he says, make him the perfect candidate to tap into what has become the top issue in the district, voters' loathing of Washington.

It's not easy being a Republican in Massachusetts. The state's Congressional delegation is unanimously Democratic; none of the statewide officeholders are Republicans, either. Republicans will point out that over the past two decades, just one Democrat - incumbent Deval Patrick - has held the governor's mansion, but that is a function of a population looking for someone outside traditional Beacon Hill political circles, circles dominated by Democrats. More often than not, Democrats will nominate a party insider, while Republicans have no insiders to nominate.

Ogonowski's solution to the overwhelming Democratic edge in the district - more than 50,000 people voted in the Democratic primary, while just 13,000 Republicans went to the polls - is to establish himself as an outsider, and never to flaunt his GOP affiliation. His second television advertisement features black-and-white photos of Democrats including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Jack Murtha, as well as Republicans Tom DeLay and Randy "Duke" Cunningham as a narrator intones: "The problem, Congress is broken." Ogonowski, as the solution, is "not a partisan politician." Nowhere on his yard signs is he identified as a Republican.

The message might be having an effect. A SurveyUSA poll, conducted for WBZ-TV in early September, showed Ogonowski trailing Niki Tsongas by a narrow 51%-41% margin. National Republicans say they are looking at similar data, while questioning why, if Democrats have polls showing Tsongas up by a wider margin, those polls haven't leaked.

Tsongas is no new-comer to the district either. As dean of Middlesex Community College and having served the public in her hometown of Lowell, the population center of the district, for 35 years, she is a known commodity. Her family name helps as well: She is the widow of former Senator and Presidential candidate Paul Tsongas, who represented the district in the House for two terms before moving to the upper chamber.

Niki Tsongas is not trading on her late husband's name alone. She served on commissions to build a baseball stadium and an arena in Lowell, and her fundraising has been strong. She raised $1.26 million through August 15, the last filing required, and maintained about $500,000 of that money on hand. Ogonowski had raised about $233,000 through August 15, with $100,000 saved up.

Both parties agree that, in the October 16 special election that will replace Meehan, turnout will be low. If one party can gain a turnout advantage, a surprise could take place. Both campaigns have recruited turnout experts to make sure the advantage is theirs. The district is also an anomaly in normally solid-blue Massachusetts. While it favored Sen. John Kerry and Al Gore in their White House bids, it also voted for Republican Governors William Weld, Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney. In a year when Patrick was on his way to a landslide 20-point win over his Republcian opponent, he won just 51% in the Fifth District.

Ogonowski's message borders on one Massachusetts voters could find appealing. He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants, which plays a surprisingly strong role in the Northeast, wants to cut "wasteful spending," a staple for any fiscal conservative, and wants to invest in environmentally-friendly energy saving technology, which he sees as a means for economic growth.

And while Tsongas, as the nominee of the incumbent party that controls Washington, may be hurt by Ogonowski's message of a broken Congress, she is taking every step necessary to remind voters of his less popular positions. "There's a clear choice in this general election between Niki and her Republican opponent," said Tsongas spokeswoman Katie Elbert, who cited as a top example Ogonowski's support for what she called President Bush's policy in Iraq.

The Tsongas campaign hopes to use Iraq, and the fact that Democrats control Congress, to their benefit. Tsongas "has talked about how without Democrats in control of Congress we wouldn't be talking about a timetable for getting out of Iraq," Elbert said. "[Tsongas] wants to come to Washington to join the majority."

Still, it is clear that Tsongas is taking Ogonowski's threat seriously. With just over two weeks to go before the special election, Tsongas attended rallies yesterday with former President Bill Clinton, whose relationship with her husband, who he beat in 1992, was tense. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also appeared on the trail with Tsongas, which is unusual support for a seat the party would consider safe.

Clinton's and Pelosi's visits are timed to head off what could be a major embarrassment, and it shows Democrats have learned from previous Republican mistakes. In 2005, Ohio Congressman Rob Portman resigned to serve as United States Trade Representative, and the race to succeed him was thought to be merely a formality after the Republican primary. Still, when former State Representative Jean Schmidt won a contested and bitter GOP nomination fight, and with the support of bloggers and the netroots, Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, a Democrat, came within four thousand votes of scoring the surprise upset.

The election was perhaps the first indication that the Republican Party was in some serious trouble, and presaged, a little over a year later, Democrats' reclamation of Congress.

A surprise showing from Ogonowski, even if it isn't a win, would dramatically change the conventional wisdom in Washington. While Congress' approval ratings are in the tank, few insiders believe that Democrats will not expand their majority in 2008, and a rash of recent articles have suggested that the Republican house is in shambles. Should Ogonowski come close to taking a seat for his party, pundits could take another look at the 2008 map, and perhaps conclude that a message like Ogonowski's - of change in Congress, no matter the party - could carry the day and hold some hope for Republicans.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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