Lessons From Tsongas v. Ogonowski For 2008

As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Republicans jumped on Niki Tsongas's 6-point victory over Republican Jim Ogonowski in Tuesday's MA-05 special election as an opportunity to tout the supposed vulnerability of Democrats nationwide in 2008, claiming a moral victory for their candidate despite the fact that a 6 point win for a Democrat in one of the more conservative districts in Massachusetts -- in fact one that Mitt Romney won with 55% of the vote -- is actually a decent showing.

One example of this post-election spin came in the form of a memo sent out by the NRCC. From The Politico:

Republicans hailed the close race as a moral victory, arguing that Ogonowski "sent a message to the Washington establishment and Democratic Party that will reverberate throughout next year's election.

"He proved that a Republican challenger, who centers their campaign on the core issues of lower taxes, less government spending, respect for the rule of law and, most importantly, the issue of bringing change to Washington, can effectively garner votes from independents and swing voters," the NRCC wrote in a post-election memo.

This last point is key to their 2008 strategy to try to knock off some of the Democratic freshmen in conservative districts and hold that growing list of open GOP seats, a necessity if they hope to retake...er keep losses to a minimum. As Rep. Tom Cole, Chair of the NRCC, said:

"I tell candidates all the time that you ought to be running against all of Washington, D.C., and that includes us," Cole said. "Because we have not ourselves, in every case, lived up to the things that we wanted to accomplish as a party."

Not that this should make us quake in our boots or anything, especially considering the difficulty Republicans are having recruiting top tier challengers, but the Tsongas v. Ogonowski offers a strategy for Democrats to emulate as well.

Ogonowski, of course, ran as an "independent""outsider""devoted to fixing a broken congress" but he also, when Tsongas challenged him directly, never answered how he would have voted on SCHIP or the veto override. This should, and I'm sure will, be central to the Democrats' counter strategy for holding back Republican challenges, especially in moderate districts. For if there was a teachable moment for the Democrats out of Tuesday's special election, this was it.

From The Politico:

Republicans privately acknowledge that Ogonowski was hurt by not taking a position on whether he would have voted to override the president's veto. During the campaign, he said he supported the intent of the legislation but that the bill that passed the House was flawed.

In the campaign's final weeks, Tsongas relentlessly tried to pin Ogonowski down on his position, to no avail.

The SCHIP fight will be an effective tool, to be sure, both against members who voted against the expansion as well as against challengers who will be challenged to say how they would have voted had they been in congress. But it will also serve as an effective counter to any Republican who wishes to push the "broken congress" meme for the defeat of this extremely popular bi-partisan SCHIP expansion bill makes more clear than any other congressional fight this year that the biggest problem with congress is the Republicans in it.

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MA-05: Results Thread -- Tsongas Wins

Polls closed at 8pm ET and results can be found HERE as they come in.

In less than stellar anecdotal news, Blue Mass Group reported light turnout in Democratic areas and "brisk" turnout in Republican areas.

Right now, with 3% reporting, Tsongas is ahead 59%-38%

Update [2007-10-16 20:59:8 by Todd Beeton]:BlueMassGroup is reporting quite a tight race (caveat: not sure of BMG's source):

With 137 of 196 precincts:

Tsongas 38,501

Ogonowski 36,395

If my math is correct, that's 51.4 to 48.6 with 70% reporting. Not good.

Update [2007-10-16 21:8:11 by Todd Beeton]: %'s holding steady with 75% reporting (per BMG.)

Update [2007-10-16 23:1:51 by Jonathan Singer]: The Associated Press has called the race, with Tsongas leading 51 percent to 46 percent with 86 percent of precincts reporting.

Update [2007-10-16 23:7:19 by Jonathan Singer]:The Lowell Sun has the final margin at 51 percent to 45 percent with every precint in.

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MA-05: Niki Tsongas (D) Up By 9

Following up on my post from yesterday about how SCHIP might impact Tuesday's special election in MA-05, a new Survey USA poll (457 LVs, 10/8-10/10, MOE 4.7%) released last night shows that Niki Tsongas just can't seem to rise above 51% and is leading her Republican opponent by just 9%. While the results don't seem to have shifted much since September when Tsongas led Jim Ogonowski 51%-41%, the internals have actually changed quite a bit.

Among self-identified Independent voters, who make-up 39% of the electorate in SurveyUSA's turnout model, Ogonowski's advantage has grown from 7 points on 09/11 to 13 points today. The more Independents who turn out on Tuesday, the better Ogonowski does. Among self-described Moderates -- a group that often moves in harmony with Independent voters, but not in this contest -- Tsongas has gained 15 points. Conservatives are locked-in on Ogonowski; he leads by 71 points there. Liberals are locked-in on Tsongas; she leads by 76 points there. The Gender Gap has grown since SurveyUSA's last poll. Ogonowski today leads by 18 points among men. Tsongas leads by 37 points among women. Gender Gap had been 45 points, now 55 points.

Tsongas's rise among moderates and women certainly tracks with what we'd expect in the wake of Bush's SCHIP veto, which Tsongas has made a pillar of her campaign. But why Independents are flocking to the Republican, contrary to conventional wisdom about the strength of Democrats among Independent voters, is a question mark.

Is it due to a disproportionately large conservative block among the Independent voters in the district (self-ID Republicans are under 20% after all,) or is it, as Charlie Cook suggests, a function of disillusion with the Democrats in Congress or perhaps a backlash against "the perception of a revolving door between higher education and public office in the Bay State." (Former Rep. Marty Meehan left congress to become Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, while Tsongas has spent the last 10 years as Dean of External Affairs at Middlesex Community College.) Or it could be just good old fashioned advertising. In one ad, Ogonowski fashions himself an outsider determined to fix the "broken congress;" he also avoids mentioning his party affiliation in the ad. In another, Ogonowski uses the story of the death of his brother, who was the pilot of one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, to reflect on his own character.

But regardless of the reason for Ogonowski's strength among Independents, it should serve as a warning sign to Democrats who think they can count on Independents to win next year. In MA-05 on Tuesday, it's clear that Tsongas must excite her base and turn out Democrats if she wants to increase her margin of victory, a good lesson for all Democrats running for congress to heed.

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MA-05: SCHIP Becoming An Issue in Special Election

The MA-05 special election to replace Marty Meehan is on Tuesday and the story of the race so far has been the tighter than expected SurveyUSA poll from September 7-10, which showed Tsongas leading Republican Jim Ogonowski by just 10 points, 51%-41%. This in a district in which only 18% of registered voters are self-identified Republicans. Chris Bowers elaborates.

The worrying part about this poll is that Tsongas is losing independents, 46-39, and that Ogonowski holds Republicans better than Tsongas holds Democrats. That is the old formula we saw working against Democrats before the wave started to build in mid-2005. Most worrying of all, Ogonowski is nearly even with Tsongas among those who disapprove of Bush, 46%-47%. If Democrats no longer hold the edge in partisan coherency, are behind among independents, and local Republicans have successfully distanced themselves from Bush and national Republicans, then the two-year plus run where Democrats held a decisive electoral advantage nationwide might be over.

That is, if the tightness of this race is significant or merely typical, as in the case of a similar pre-election poll in VT-AL last year, which Bowers also cites. Charlie Cook weighed in on the race at The National Journal over the weekend and quotes a pollster who agrees this race could signal a warning sign for Democrats.

One Democratic pollster, Massachusetts native Brad Bannon, suggests that Democratic voters in the district might be in a surly mood because of their party's inability to bring a conclusion to the war. "More than anything else," Bannon argues, "voters elected the new Democratic congressional majority to end the war. To protect their majority, congressional Democrats will need to bite the bullet and take a hard line to get American combat troops out of Iraq." Bannon believes that some anti-war voters might stay home on Election Day 2008 or vote for anti-war independent candidates. In this regard, he thinks the 5th District race could be a harbinger of problems ahead for the Democrats.

The Survey USA analysis does suggest there may be something to this.

Just 15% of likely voters in this District approve of the job Congress is doing. Among those who  do  approve of Congress, the Democrat Tsongas leads by 24 points. But among the 71% of likely voters who do  not approve  of the job Congress is doing, the candidates tie.

The biggest problem with the poll, however, is that it's a month old at this point. A lot has happened since then including a debate, which BlueMassGroup sums up like so:

Ogo had a couple of real howlers tonight.  First, he treated us to the continuation of his Jim Idon'tknowski comedy routine on the SCHIP veto; Sun reporter Matt Murphy made him look very silly.  But also, Ogo said in response to a question asking what, specifically, he would do about the gang violence problems in Lowell and Lawrence, that he would make the Bush tax cuts permanent.  Uh, what?  And when asked which presidential candidate's health care plan was closest to his own, he said he doesn't support FEMA.  Uh, what??

Tsongas has also received several newspaper endorsements in the past week including The Boston Globe, the conservative Lowell Sun plus The Phoenix, which puts their preference for Tsongas this way:

Niki Tsongas and Jim Ogonowski, offer distinct visions for the future: an end to the war in Iraq and the prolonging of it; a path to health-care reform and the obstruction of it; a rational immigration policy and the spewing of empty rhetoric.

In addition, current events have insinuated themselves into the campaign, most notably, Bush's SCHIP veto, which Tsongas has made a focus of her campaign. Tsongas's website features a clock that counts down the time since Tsongas demanded to know how Ogonowski would vote on the SCHIP override (see press release.)

On Oct. 3, Niki Tsongas asked Republican Jim Ogonowski to state his position on President Bush's veto of SCHIP. The voters of the District are still waiting for an answer.

The issue also has played a central role in a few of the endorsements Tsongas has received. The Lowell Sun, for instance, said:

Ogonowski said he supports SCHIP, but has repeatedly refused to say whether he would support the veto or vote to override. Instead he calls it a bad bill and says he would work to expand the program. Unfortunately, that doesn't tell us what he would do on Oct. 18 when the override vote is scheduled to come before Congress. We find his lack of candor on this issue troubling.

While it will be tempting to see the results of this race as a referendum on the Democratic majority's (in-)effectiveness, it's beginning to look like the race's importance may lie in the extent to which it serves as a test case for how to use SCHIP votes against Republicans next year. If Tsongas can't translate Ogonowski's position on Bush's veto into a double digit win now, SCHIP may not turn out to be as much of a gift as we'd thought.

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When Will They Ever Learn?

Charley and David of Blue Mass Group were evicted from the media area of a debate between Nikki Tsongas and Jim Ogonowski last night.  The reason?  Blue Mass Group has endorsed Tsongas, and the Ogonowski camp complained about their presence.

When will campaigns realize that this sort of thing always backfires?  

Best quote from David's post:

I asked whether, if the Globe had endorsed Tsongas, they would be permitted to sit in the studio.  No answer.

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