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December 12, 2007

Republican Special Election Performance A Harbinger For 2008?

Had the Republicans lost their two special election contests to replace deceased GOP House members, one would see the papers filled with analyses of the coming debacle for Republican hopes in 2008. Now that they have won both handily, expect most to either ignore the races altogether or chalk up the wins to local Republican strength. However, pundits cannot easily dismiss the lessons from the race in Ohio:

Republicans retained two House seats in special elections Tuesday, including a hotly contested Ohio race that the two parties spent nearly $700,000 trying to win. ...

State legislator Bob Latta decisively defeated Democrat Robin Weirauch in Ohio’s 5th District, leading by 56 to 43 percent with 90 percent of the vote in. The special election was held to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor (R).

In Virginia’s 1st District, GOP state Del. Rob Wittman won a landslide victory over Iraq war veteran Phil Forgit (D) in the race to succeed the late Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R).

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Wittman had 61 percent of the vote, while Forgit had only tallied 37 percent.

The story of the evening was Latta’s victory, however, given signs in recent weeks that the reliably Republican district, based in Bowling Green, was in danger of falling into Democratic hands.

The issue involved more than just the 5th CD in Ohio. Democrats won the governorship in Ohio last year, and they had hoped that the special election would show that they have the momentum in the Buckeye State. The state Republicans took a beating over scandals involving the previous governor and other state officials, and Democrats believe that they can win the state in the next presidential election -- which could provide the key to winning back the White House.

In order to make that case, the Democrats poured money and effort into OH-05. Governor Ted Strickland campaigned personally in the district. Labor sent its activists to bolster Weirauch's ground game. The national DCCC spent almost a quarter-million dollars attempting to tie Latta to the past scandals of state GOP officials.

In the end, it availed them nothing. Despite all of the attention, Latta won the seat by the same margin as the late Dan Gillmore did in 2006 with the advantage of incumbency. It strongly suggests that Ohio remains solidly Republican even after the 2006 spanking it took over Bob Taft and Tom Noe. That puts a big crimp in the Democrats' national plans for the presidential race, and could mean that they will have to forego a big push in Ohio and look for better ground elsewhere.

In Virginia, the lesson looks less stark. Neither side spent too much effort on Virginia's 1st CD, although Democrats sent Governor Tim Kaine in the last week to attempt an upset. Instead, they lost by an almost 2-1 spread. The GOP chalks this up to the immigration debate, which made the last special election -- a usually safe Democratic seat in Massachussetts -- a much closer affair, with Nikki Tsongas only winning by a few percentage points.

Expect the Republicans to focus on immigration as next year's big issue. With Iraq improving steadily, the Democrats may find themselves without a hot-button topic -- and the House, at least, could fall back into Republican hands.


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