Lessons of a Near Upset in Massachusetts

Tsongas’s narrow victory in congressional race may or may not be a harbinger of 2008.

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Here are the election returns for Tuesday’s special election in the Fifth District of Massachusetts. Democrat Niki Tsongas beat Republican Jim Ogonowski 51 to 45 percent in a district in which John Kerry beat George W. Bush 57 to 41 percent. This probably counts as the “near upset” I suggested as a possibility in my U.S. News column for the week.

As I noted in an October 3 blog posting, a SurveyUSA poll taken in September showed Tsongas up 51 to 41 percent, and Democrats poured in celebrities—Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry—to help Tsongas essentially maintain that level of support. Ogonowski evidently increased his support in the face of this onslaught. This is not the victory Republicans wistfully hoped for. But it was something like Democrat Paul Hackett’s near upset in the special election in August 2005 in Ohio’s heavily Republican Second District.

This is not necessarily a harbinger for the 2008 House elections. Special-election results often oscillate outside normal partisan patterns. Voters in Massachusetts’s Fifth knew they could elect a Republican representative without electing a Republican Congress. Republicans are unlikely to capture any Democratic districts in Massachusetts (which is to say, any Massachusetts districts) in November 2008. Still, there may be some lessons here—as there were in the Ohio Second District result in 2005.

One: Ogonowski campaigned against Congress. This is the first time since 1994 that Republicans have been able to campaign against a Democratic Congress, and Congress’s job ratings are dismally low. The Democratic leadership has clearly not created the impression that it has cleaned up Congress. Next year, Democrats won’t have George W. Bush to campaign against, as they did in 2006 and as Niki Tsongas did in 2007. Republicans will have the Democratic Congress to campaign against. That looks likely to be a plus for them.

Two: Ogonowski campaigned on holding down taxes. This is an issue that has not worked for Republicans in a long time. I speculated in my column that it could change the votes of high earners who have been favoring Democrats on cultural issues. This does not seem to have happened. Ogonowski actually ran even with or 1 to 3 percentage points behind Bush’s 2004 numbers in high-income, culturally liberal Boston suburbs in the southern part of the district: Wayland, Sudbury, Concord, Acton, and Harvard (an actual town, not near Cambridge).

Where he ran ahead of Bush was in the suburbs around Lowell and Lawrence, places with income levels somewhat lower (or at least that is my impression) but mostly above the national average. He ran 4 to 6 points ahead of Bush 2004 in Billerica, Chelmsford, Tyngsboro, Tewksbury, and Andover, and 16 points ahead in his home town of Dracut. These form a sort of circle around Lowell, the old mill town which became something of a high-tech center and is of mixed income levels, where he ran 4 points ahead of Bush 2004. He was helped here by hometown fame—he is a retired Air Force officer well known as the brother of John Ogonowski, the pilot of the American Airlines jet that was flown into the World Trade Center—and by the fact that voters here tend to read the Lowell Sun, which provided more coverage of the race than the Boston Globe, the paper of choice in the suburbs to the south. Ogonowski also ran 6 points ahead of Bush 2004 in Methuen, just north of Lawrence, and Haverhill, the former shoe-manufacturing city on the Merrimack River just to the east.

This suggests to me that Ogonowski’s two leading substantive issues, taxes and immigration, cut significantly into the Democratic vote in middle-income areas while failing utterly to do so in the high-income suburbs. Perhaps high-income voters, whose accountants do their taxes and who have plenty of money to spend no matter how high taxes are, don’t really mind tax increases, while middle-income voters, who may do their own taxes and have to think hard about how much they can afford to spend on vacations, tuitions, etc., mind more. At least that’s my tentative conclusion.

I was up in the district in late September and interviewed Tsongas and Ogonowski’s campaign manager. My impression was that Tsongas was running a 2006 campaign—vote against Bush, stop the war—that is in the process of being overtaken by events: Bush is leaving, and the surge is actually working. Ogonowski, meanwhile, was running a 2007 campaign, raising issues like taxes and immigration that were not much emphasized in 2006. The 2008 campaign, I think, will probably resemble 2007 more than 2006 and will be shaped as well by the two presidential nominees.

Since the 2006 election I have written that we are in a period of open-field politics. The Massachusetts Fifth’s special election seems to confirm that—and to indicate that past voting patterns may no longer be relevant and that there may be some unpleasant surprises—for Democrats but also quite possibly for Republicans, too.