Storm Clouds for the GOP?

Newt Gingrich is right, I think, that Republicans should be concerned with the results of the special election for the 2nd district House seat of recently appointed trade representative Rob Portman in the Cincinnati suburbs of Ohio.

John Kerry never managed to develop a coherent message on Iraq after he defeated the anti—war candidate Howard Dean for his Party's nomination for President in 2004. But the Dean message seemed to resonate with some voters in this House district that normally votes 65—70% Republican, providing just a narrow win (52% to 48%) for  Republican Jean Schmidt over Iraq veteran and now war opponent Paul Hackett in the open seat race. The 2nd District is rated the second most Republican district in Ohio, so a close race here is a surprise. 

Normally , in the House elections every two years, each party targets open seat races, and vulnerable incumbents, those who won with under 55% of the vote in the last cycle. While a seat that goes 70% Republican for a popular incumbent would not be expected to go that strongly for the GOP nominee in an open seat race, clearly the 3.4% margin in  this race was much closer than GOP partisans expected.

The Democrats, with the aggressive fund raiser Illinois Congressman Rahm Emmanuel running the House campaign for the Party this cycle, will likely target many more GOP incumbents as potentially vulnerable, based on the Ohio results. There may be fewer seats viewed as safe next year, and more seats in play, raising the costs for both sides in next year's races. The ante has been raised.

For the moment, the perceived lack of progress in Iraq is hurting the Republicans. The nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court has been widely praised. The economy seems to be rolling along at a steady growth rate with declining unemployment levels, though the media studiously ignores the good times. The housing boom is creating widespread wealth across the country. The Democrats' attempt to make the GOP the scandal party, first with Tom DeLay, now with the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame story, seems to be fading. The Wilson story has little substance, and is  incomprehensible to most people. But the Iraq war lingers and with the heavy American death toll this week, concerns will grow.

Political analyst Michael Barone, whose invaluable book The Almanac of American Politics   is just out with its 2006 edition, went to press after the primaries in the 2nd district race, but before the special election this past Tuesday.

Discussing the 2nd District race in the new Almanac, Barone wrote

'that the  August 2nd general election in this heavily Republican district was expected to be a mere formality.' 

Some of this confidence in an easy GOP victory might have been due to the fact that in the primary election for the seat, GOP turnout was about 46,000 and Democratic turnout was only 14,000.

Barone now says that Schmidt was a weak candidate, which seems to be true. She won only won 31% of the vote in the GOP primary for the open House seat, and had lost her last race in 2004, a GOP State Senate primary. Barone also says that the GOP's turnout or ground game failed them this time. But the turnout argument, I think, is weak.

Barone says Schmidt's vote was 27% of Bush's vote in the District in  2004, (which Bush carried with 64% of the vote) and Hacketts' vote was 46% of the Kerry vote. Hence, the GOP did not get their vote out, while the Democrats got theirs out. But I think this line of reasoning substitutes a math calculation for explanation. What if the closeness of the race actually reflects many GOP voters showing up, but not supporting Schmidt?

The biggest problem the GOP needs to concern itself with may be the declining state of the Party in Ohio. Ohio has been a solid Republican state: GOP Governor, two GOP Senators, 12 GOP House members to 6 for the Democrats, large majorities controlling both branches of the state legislature, and a record of supporting virtually every winning GOP Presidential candidate (sometimes supplying the margin of victory, as in 2004). But the current Governor Robert Taft has become very unpopular, amidst scandals, tax increases, and high spending. He cannot run for another term in 2006. The name Taft is virtually synonymous with the GOP in Ohio.

The death of 20 marines in Iraq this week, mostly Marine Reservists from Ohio, is a huge story in the state. Voters may be feeling fed up.

The House race this week may have been in part a reaction to the Governor's very visible problems. But I think the bigger problem for the GOP in Ohio and elsewhere is Iraq. This is not to side with the anti—war opponents, but to reflect a political reality. A continuing war with an average of 60 to 70 American deaths each month is taking a political toll on  the President and his Party. This ongoing toll may have jeopardized a safe GOP seat this week. It also may have held back the President's vote totals in 2004.

Last year, just after the Presidential election, Barone  told an audience at David Horowitz's Restoration Weekend conference in Florida, that Bush's popular vote margin of less than 3% might have been a good bit larger, 5% to 7% , without the overhang of the Iraq war.  A 5% to 7% popular vote victory nationally would have added several states to the GOP column: New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and probably Michigan, and Minnesota, and perhaps even Oregon.

The Bush re—election would then have looked more like the Clinton victories in 1992 and 1996 with mid—300 Electoral College vote totals. In fact, it would have been better than Clinton's by surpassing 50% of the popular vote, which Clinton never did with Perot in the race both years as a third party candidate.

Had John Kerry won Ohio in 2004, which would have happened with a shift of 60,000 votes out of about 5.6 million cast last November,  he would now be President. If Ohio slips away, the GOP will have far more serious trouble than just holding House seats.

A few months back, it was considered highly unlikely that the GOP could lose control of the House in 2006, since it would take a 15 seat Democratic pickup for this to happen. Most GOP held seats  looked out of reach for the Democrats, due to redistricting after the 2000 census and the creation of mostly safe GOP and Democratic held seats across the country. The Ohio race should be a wakeup call for the GOP that 2006 could be a very difficult year.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent for The American Thinker.