The Luck of the Polish

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They all laughed when I said we should pay some attention to Massachusetts' Fifth Congressional District. They said a Republican couldn't win even the least Democratic district in the bluest state. They were half right!

Democrat Niki Tsongas of Lowell defeated Republican James Ogonowski of Dracut today to capture the 5th District congressional seat vacated by Marty Meehan earlier this year.

With 195 of 195 precincts reporting, Tsongas captured 54,363 votes, or 51 percent compared to 47,770 votes, or 45 percent, for Ogonowski.

I said that if Ogonowski, a retired colonel whose brother was one of the murdered 9/11 pilots, won this seat, it would shatter Democratic momentum for 2008. He didn't win. He came about as close as Republican polling said he would two weeks ago. Stats whiz Patrick Ruffini, who scoffed at Democrats who called the 2005 Paul Hackett defeat a "win" (being smarter than the rest of us, Ruffini occasionally scrubs his archives), thinks Ogonowski has written the 2008 GOP playbook.

It's simple: the change message works. America is anti-Washington, anti-Congress, and anti-corruption. When that's where Republicans are, they win… All you need is a plain-spoken veteran with an extraordinary life story. We need more citizen-candidates like Jim Ogonowski.

Well, true, but neither party is brimming with farmer-soldiers whose brothers died on 9/11 and who are ready to work themselves ragged. (Ogonowski lost 40 pounds during the campaign.) And like I mentioned last week, it seemed truly odd that Ogonowski spent the weeks between the primary and the special election hitting Tsongas, Bush and Democrats for wanting to give amnesty or drivers' licenses to undocumented workers. His answer when reporters asked him about SCHIP (since the election winner would be sworn in for the vote this week) was that the Democrats' SCHIP bill would give health care to illegal immigrants. It wouldn't, but it was neatly folded into a ploy that, as usual, didn't work. Voters will tell pollsters they oppose stuff like this but they don't think of it first when they vote, and they struggle with candidates who seem obsessed by it.

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  1. Voters will tell pollsters they oppose stuff like this but they don’t think of it first when they vote, and they struggle with candidates who seem obsessed by it.

    Just like black voters who oppose gay marriage and immigration, but don’t warm up to politicians who get too worked up about the issues.

    For most voters, policy positions function primarily as expressions of values. It’s very easy for both anti-immigrant and anti-SCHIP policies to look meanspirited. Putting them together was not a good idea.

  2. So the most effective way into office these days is to be married to someone else who was in office? Interesting.

  3. In 2004 the Democrats were really excited about winning two special House elections in Kentucky and South Dakota. These were the first Democratic pickups of House seats from Republicans in special elections in many years. In the end, they don’t seem to have meant very much for the Demcorats’ showing in the 2004 general election. So I’m not sure we should read too much into special elections.

  4. Especially when the original office holder is dead. Sen. Clinton should kill Bill if she wants to win. We love widows.

  5. David T,

    In the general election in 2004, the Democrats came closer to defeating an incumbent president during wartime than had even happened in the history of the Republic. Go back through the comment threads about the election from the Summer of 2003 – Spring of 2004. They’re full of confident predictions from Republicans about what a blow-out the presidential election was going to be.

    Those special elections indicated that Bush would be in trouble in 2004, and they were right. When it comes to shifts in the electorate, point spreads matter.

  6. So the most effective way into office these days is to be married to someone else who was in office? Interesting.

    These days? From 40 years ago Mrs. Governor.

  7. I retract “these days”. I regretted the words when I realized that Mrs. Bono got into office quite a while back.

  8. Sen. Clinton should kill Bill if she wants to win.

    That may be the only thing that could get me to vote for her.

  9. I am gonna kill Bill.

    (That woman deserves her revenge and we deserve to die.)

  10. What the polls say is almost irrelevant. This guy had as much chance of beating Nikki Tsongas as Kerry did of beating Bush. This election was about the candidates. I listened to Nikki Tsongas and then Ogonowski the next night on the same local radio show. Tsongas paused briefly after what the host said, then spoke at a normal pace, at a normal pitch. Ogonowski started talking before the host finished, talked fast, and in a high nervous pitch. My father was planning to vote for Ogonowski, so I went to the radio station’s website to play the audio for him. Sure enough, Tsongas’s episode was there, but Ogonowski’s was nowhere to be found. Even his own people knew that if you heard him talk you’d be less likely to vote for him.

  11. R C Dean,

    You know, I’m not sure many juries would convict her. Even right-wing jurors would appreciate her righteous wrath as a woman wronged. And wronged. And wronged.

    Now, if she killed Bill, then ran as Uma Thurman, she’d win 95% of the vote.

  12. Pro Libertate

    Maybe the Republicans best hope for 08 is to kill Bush and run Laura.

    If Air Force One goes missing in the next few months you’ll know dark forces are getting their ideas at Hit and Run.

  13. Isaac Bartram,

    Whichever wife makes the move first will win. Any later widows will seem cheap and opportunistic, murdering their husbands merely for political gain.

  14. Would it then be a hair-split election between Hill and Laura if both Bill and Bush were both, uhm,… you know?

  15. A Repblican does better than anyone expected in a safe Demoratic district.
    His only substantive policy is anti-immigration.
    And this proves…. that anti-immigration doesn’t work as a political tool? Am I missing something here? While his better than expected performance cannot be proven to relate to ant-foreigner sentiment, it’s hard to see how it failed. Unless he would have won without it?

  16. w.e. white,

    It’s not that safe a Democratic district. It voted for Romney and Cellucci for governor.

  17. To me the real story is that Tsongas underperformed. This is a district that Kerry won 57-41 in 2004 and she topped out at 51%? And her last name is Tsongas as well??

    I dunno, I expected her to do better. Maybe this is a message to Democrats that despite the unhappiness with the GOP, they aren’t offering much to get excited about?

    Or maybe turnout was bad because it was a “special election”?

  18. I wonder if the Democrat’s last name had anything to do with anything? Sounds familiar…

  19. It’s not that safe a Democratic district. It voted for Romney and Cellucci for governor.

    Yeah and I guess the fact that Romney was gov means MA is not a pretty safe Democratic state?

    Come on joe. Romney was a liberal-lite when he run for governor.

  20. ChicagoTom,

    2004 was a weird election year.

    Look up info on the 5th if you want – a 51-45 victory for the Democrat is not out of line with how partisan races go here.

  21. joe,

    That was Meehan’s district right?

    As far as Congrssional votes go, since 1992 (the year Meehan was elected by a margin if 52% – 37% and 2 independants getting about 30 percent of the vote) Meehan has never gotten under 60% of the vote — his lowest being 60% against Charles McCarthy in 2002.

    And Democrats have held the seat since Paul Tsongas in 1975.

    it seems like a pretty solid D district to me

  22. joe,

    furthermore, before Meehan, the seat was held by Charles Atkins — and his thin margin of victory in 1990 in what Democrats considered a sold D district is what prompted the Dem establishment to support Meehan in the primary in 1991 which led to Meehan unseating Atkins.

  23. ChicagoTom,

    Since this was not an incubent election, there is one relevant data point in your post; the last time there was an open seat, the Democrat got 52%, and the Republican got 37%.

    In other words, Democrats can expect to win just over half the votes. As Tsongas did. Certainly, a blue district, but as I wrote, “not that safe a Democratic district.” Blue, but light blue.

  24. Just a note — it appears local Democrats were a bit pissy about Tsongas’ wife being “appointed” to the seat. (Apparently there was something of a primary challenge, and Tsongas won with the backing of the local party machine).

    It’s anecdotal, but Tsongas’ wife apparently wasn’t hugely popular with the liberal base (the people most likely to vote in a special election), and her opponent had about the best possible bio for a Republican and worked his butt off trying to take the seat (and the Democratic candidate apparently mostly sat on her ass, trusting in the HUGE democratic edge to win the seat).

    I wouldn’t read too much into it, either way. There was a solid, hardworking GOP candidate with an impressive (at least to voters) bio versus a lukewarm Democratic candidate with a angry primary behind her, in a special election that always creates a very different turnout than normal elections.

  25. Tsongas won the primary 36-31 over her better-credentialled challenger, owing mainly to Washington organizations like Emily’s list dumping a ton of money into the race. Which was really irritating, because her closest opponent was the first woman mayor in Lowell’s history, and just as good on Emily’s List issues as Tsongas.

    So Morat20 is right, there was some bad blood – or at least, a lack of entusiasm.

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