A GOP Victory in Massachusetts?

With two weeks to go, Republican nominee Jim Ogonowski seems to be within striking distance of Democratic nominee Niki Tsongas.

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When Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan of the Fifth District of Massachusetts announced he was retiring this year to become president of a local college, no one expected that Republicans would have a serious chance in the special election. This was Massachusetts, after all: John Kerry carried the district 57 to 41 percent in November 2004, and no one thinks George W. Bush could get as much as 41 percent there if he were up for re-election this year. Yet with two weeks to go, Republican nominee Jim Ogonowski seems to be within striking distance of Democratic nominee Niki Tsongas, widow of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, who was elected congressman from this district in 1974 and 1976. The last time a Republican won here was 1972, when Paul Cronin upset none other than John Kerry. As I have pointed out since the 1974 edition of the Almanac of American Politics, Kerry was one of only three Democrats who lost a House seat carried by George McGovern; the others lost to Republican incumbents in two other Massachusetts districts.

The only public polling I'm aware of is a SurveyUSA poll showing Tsongas leading Ogonowski 51 to 41 percent, with 5 percent for minor candidates. That's an unusually low 4 percent undecided, which may be explained because both major party nominees are well known. Tsongas, though she has lived outside the district in recent years, has long been active in civic affairs, and there's a Tsongas Arena in the district's largest city, Lowell. Ogonowski is the brother of John Ogonowski, the pilot of American Flight 11, the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center on September 11. Ogonowski, like his brother, served in the Air Force; after his brother's death, he took over the family farm. The Ogonowski campaign claims its candidate's name identification is 87 percent, competitive with Tsongas's 96 percent.

Tsongas had serious primary competition and spent $1.5 million in that contest; the campaign expects to spend as much for the special election, helped by an event with Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas's rival in the 1992 Democratic presidential primaries. Ogonowski will spend far less. She's on Boston TV; he's on cable. But local media are important in this race; the Lowell Sun and Lawrence Eagle-Tribune rival the Boston Globe in circulation in about half the district, and both cover the race more than the Globe does. Ogonowski's camp thinks the race has been tightening up since the SurveyUSA poll, which was released September 11. There have been reports that Democrats have a poll showing a 5 percent spread for Tsongas, but Tsongas's campaign says their tracking polls are consistent with the SurveyUSA result.

It seems that there's at least an outside chance that Ogonowski could win, and the SurveyUSA poll suggests he's running way ahead of the generic Republican vote, which presumably is somewhat lower than Bush's 41 percent in 2004. What accounts for this?

Ogonowski is running a 2007 campaign, emphasizing different issues from Republicans in 2004 or 2006. One is taxes. With the Bush tax cuts scheduled to expire in 2010, taxes will go up unless Congress acts; Tsongas, like most House Democrats, wants to repeal some but not necessarily all of the cuts. Ogonowski says the average family in the district will pay $4,000 in additional taxes if the cuts are allowed to lapse. This is an affluent district, with a median income of $56,000 in 2000, well above the national average. The tax issue has not done much for Republicans in this decade. But with the tax cuts scheduled to expire, it may be more salient now. The Fifth District, with somewhat different boundaries, voted 51 to 47 percent for George H.W. Bush (over Massachusetts's Michael Dukakis) in 1988, when Bush was proclaiming, "Read my lips: no new taxes."

The other issue Ogonowski is emphasizing is illegal immigration. He opposes the legalization provisions in the legislation the Senate considered in May and June and points out that Tsongas "supports a path to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States." He tries to take the harsh edge off the issue by pointing out that his great-grandmother immigrated to the area 103 years ago and that he has provided training on his farm for Cambodian immigrants, who are numerous in Lowell.

Ogonowski is also running, as Democrats did in 2006, against Congress, "a Congress that is controlled by special interests, plagued by scandal, and focused on partisanship before people." And he's not faithful to some Republican positions. He says he was opposed to going to war in Iraq but now wants us to pursue success; he opposes raising the retirement age for Social Security.

Tsongas, in contrast, is running a 2006 campaign. She wants to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and vigorously favors the children's health insurance bill that the president has said he will veto. Her campaign spokesman suggests that Ogonowski is more of a partisan Republican than he appears and that he attended a campaign committee training school in Washington that was addressed by—gasp—Karl Rove. She's bringing in Speaker Nancy Pelosi to campaign for her.

If this election had been held in November 2006, Tsongas would have won by a solid margin. And she may still do that October 16. The SurveyUSA poll result would translate to a 53-to-42 percent Tsongas victory. A closer result would signal that the political environment has changed since November 2006, that the poor job ratings of the Democratic Congress have become more important to voters in House elections than the poor job ratings of the soon-to-depart George W. Bush.

I have written that we are in a period of open-field politics, a period like that of 1990-95, when incumbency became a liability more than an asset, when people crossed party lines back and forth and supported independent candidacies, when old rules of thumb no longer applied. Much of Washington would be stunned if a Republican won a House seat in Massachusetts. If that should happen, that's not necessarily a forecast of 2008: Voters in special elections know that they're voting for just one member and that their vote won't change which party controls the House. But it would signal that we're in a period of turbulence, as we were in 1990 and 1992, when incumbents of both parties saw their percentages fall. And it would suggest that the issues of taxes and immigration, which didn't work for Republicans in 2004 and 2006, might work for them in 2008.