Thursday, August 04, 2005

Gingrich gets it


"It should serve as a wake-up call to Republicans, and I certainly take it very seriously, in analyzing how the public mood evidences itself .... Who is willing to show up and vote is different than who answers a public opinion poll. Clearly, there's a pretty strong signal for Republicans thinking about 2006 that they need to do some very serious planning and not just assume that everything is going to be automatically OK."

-- Newt Gingrich


On its face, the quote above from the former Speaker of the House and architect of the 1994 "Republican Revolution" seems to be calling on Republicans to keep closer track of the public pulse. True enough, but Gingrich knows that Jean Schmidt's 52-48 victory over Democrat Paul Hackett in the race to represent Ohio's 2nd district in the US House (click here for my previous article on that race) portends more than a need for keeping an ear to the ground (even if no one else thinks it portends even that much).

What else is it about? If you have to ask, the answer is usually ...

Money.

The district's previous congresscritter, Republican Ron Portman (who left Congress to accept an executive branch appointment), never polled less than 72% in his six campaigns for the seat. The district went for George W. Bush in last year's presidential election by 64%. This was a "safe" Republican seat.

That doesn't mean Portman didn't raise money, though. Oh, yes, he raised money. $1.3 million for the 2004 election cycle alone.

$382,000 of which he gave to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

And $50,000 to the Republican National Committee.

A little here, a little there. Over the years, he's raised millions, and given a hefty portion of it away -- to embattled Republican candidates whose districts aren't "safe," and to party committees which direct money to those same battleground districts.

In the normal course of things, Jean Schmidt might have been expected to do likewise -- show up for the cakewalk, take the oath of office, and then get her rear end out on the fundraising circuit to bulk up the GOP's prospects elsewhere, good old OH-2 safely in pocket.

Instead, the Republican Party had to come to her rescue and pump half a million bucks in media money into the race to keep that "safe" seat in Republican hands. Barely.

In 1994, Newt Gingrich led the GOP to its first congressional majority in 40 years by running a "national campaign." The Republicans fought tooth and nail for every seat and organizations like Gingrich's own GOPAC shifted financial resources to where they were most needed. The Democrats lost because they didn't see it coming, and "safe" Democratic seats fell like dominoes. Since then, the GOP has maintained and enlarged its majority in the same fashion. Congresscritters-for-life like Roy Blunt raise big bucks, but they don't spend the money on themselves. They know they're going to handily win re-election. They write checks to buy GOP victories in the marginal, contested elections elsewhere.

"National campaign," huh? Didn't I hear someone talking about a "50-state campaign" not too long ago?

Nobody but nobody expected Paul Hackett to win on Tuesday. Very few expected him to come as close as he did. But what Democratic strategists were hoping for, he accomplished. He changed OH-2 from a "safe" district and a source of campaign funds for the GOP into a battleground district that the GOP had to pump money into to hold on to. He took half a million dollars out of the GOP's sails, and checkbooks are slamming shut around the country as "safe" Republicans decide to build their campaign account balances up instead of writing checks. They're not feeling quite as safe as they were ... nor should they. Never know where a Paul Hackett might pop up next.

It's too early to say that Democrats have managed to change the dynamic entirely, but they're in a good position now. If "safe" Republicans keep writing checks, there could be some upsets when they come up against real opponents instead of ballot-fodder, graceful-loser nominees. If they hold onto their money, then those "marginal" seats are a whole lot more likely to become Democratic pickups for lack of national GOP funding.

We're not looking at 1994 in reverse next year, because people like Gingrich know what they're seeing and won't be blind-sided -- but the situation has changed, and it's changed in the Democrats' favor.

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