Bellwether Ohio

August 09, 2005

OHIO'S 2nd Congressional District stretches from eastern Cincinnati's toniest neighborhoods to depressed rural towns on the very western edge of Appalachia. A big slice of the most Republican of the nation's larger metropolitan areas - in the most Republican of the industrial states - the 2nd District has long been among the most reliable GOP strongholds. Its residents gave President Bush 64 percent of their votes in the 2004 election, and its last representative, new U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, topped 70 percent in six straight elections.

Thus the outcome of last week's special election to fill Mr. Portman's seat cannot be ignored: Republican candidate Jean Schmidt - a well-funded Right to Life leader and former state legislator - won, but with only 52 percent of the vote, a margin of only about 3,600 votes.

Notably, her Democratic foe, attorney Paul Hackett, was an Iraq war veteran - the nation's first to run for Congress - who called the war a misuse of the U.S. military and President Bush's "bring 'em on" challenge the "stupidest" presidential remark he'd ever heard. Having re-enlisted in the Marine reserves to serve as a major in Iraq for seven months, he says the U.S. military should focus more on training Iraqi soldiers so that American troops can come home. Mr. Hackett not only broke the 2nd District's mold but was hardly a typical candidate for the Democratic Party; he's against gun control, for one thing.

Mr. Hackett gained traction by telling voters not to elect "a rubber stamp" for Mr. Bush. In the 2004 election, much was made of Ohio's role in re-electing the president and of the church-based get-out-the-vote effort that put him over the top there. While it's possible to make too much of Mr. Hackett's near-victory - after all, he did lose - any time a Democrat gives a Republican that tough a time in this district, it qualifies as a political shock wave. The dominant local paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, also very reliably Republican, called Mr. Hackett's showing "astounding." And national GOP analysts termed it a wake-up call in advance of the 2006 midterm votes.

Sadly, the results of the 2nd District election were set in bold relief by the losses last week of 21 Ohio Marines from the same battalion - 14 from one small town - in action in Iraq. By the end of last week, several polls pegged Americans' support for President Bush's course in Iraq at its lowest ever - with support plummeting in the Midwest.

Mr. Hackett likely will run again next year, perhaps even for the U.S. Senate. But for this election to turn out to be a national bellwether - as Democrats now hope - the party will have to find many more straight-talking, outside-the-box candidates who can capitalize on the deep and growing discontent with Mr. Bush's war.

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