Jim Ogonowski is the most famous special election loser most people have never heard of.  Some are taking his close defeat (in Massachusetts) as proof that anti-incumbency and “change” are the things driving voters this cycle, and that our “closely divided electorate” is actually closely divided again.  Ruffini takes it as proof that “we can finally dispense with the talk of 2008 being another 2006 for Democrats.”  It would help the strength of this claim if most of the people at TownHall had actually thought that 2006 would be a 2006 for the Democrats. 

But it isn’t just the TownHall criers who see this election as potentially significant: Jim Antle and Dave Weigel were talking about this race before the Fightin’ Fifth became a Republican talking point.  Weigel attributes Ogonowski’s loss not only to the extremely adverse conditions of running as a Republican in Massachusetts, but also to Ogonowski’s choice to oppose S-CHIP using anti-immigration rhetoric.  It seems equally likely that Ogonowski performed as well as he did (45%, four points better than Bush ran in the district in ‘04) because he tried to recast a highly unpopular position (opposing S-CHIP) in more popular–and populist–language.  However, Weigel does make the right point when he notes, “neither party is brimming with farmer-soldiers whose brothers died on 9/11 and who are ready to work themselves ragged.” 

For Ogonowski’s campaign to serve as a GOP model for next year’s House races, the Republicans would need to recruit candidates as dedicated and appealing as Ogonowski.  Right now, Republican candidate recruitment is going badly, since many local pols who might be interested in making a run for Congress see next year as a disaster and don’t want to be part of it.  A demoralised party base, anemic fundraising and an effectively broke NRCC all mean that you’re not going to have many war veteran Jim Ogonowskis charging into deep blue territory.  It means that you’re going to have virtual no-name rookies trying to recapture territory that your side never should have lost in the first place (TX-22, FL-16, etc.).     

Also, no one seems to be paying attention to this, but the sheer number of votes cast in the special election was much lower than it was even in an uncontested general election last fall.  Turnout at this election was less than half of what it was in ‘06, when Meehan was running without opposition.  ’06 had 50,000 fewer total votes than the contested ‘04 race, in which the Republican received 88,232 votes, over forty thousand more than Ogonowski received (47,770).  What this means is that Ogonowski, with his service record, notable personal story, generally well-run campaign and work ethic, barely managed to bring out half of the Republican voters of the 5th.  Tsongas, for her part, only motivated about a third of Meehan’s ‘06 voters to show up, but this is typical for the two parties in a special election.  In other words, 45% is probably the very best the GOP could have hoped to get in this election, and it achieved that goal.  It will be downhill from here. 

As MA-05 demonstrates quite nicely, Republicans tend to turn out at a greater rate at special, off-year and midterm elections and have done so for a very long time.  Presidential election years tend to have the best turnout for Democratic voters, because their voters tend to turn out at the highest rates when they are mobilised to back the presidential nominee.  That means that next year could conceivably be worse for the Republicans than last year, and the competitiveness in MA-05, to the extent that it has broader significance, vastly exaggerates the GOP’s appeal to the voters.  In any case, next year’s results from Massachusetts are very likely going to be a lot more lopsided than was Ogonowski’s run. 

Following the same logic being applied by Republican boosters to the MA-05 race, the very close IL-06 open race last year between Pete Roskam and Tammy Duckworth (a double amputee Iraq war helicopter pilot) is evidence that even DuPage County could turn Democratic.  Taking such open elections, especially when they are special elections in an off year, as evidence of a national trend seems mistaken, and the fact that it is being taken as a sign of things to come rather reflects the desperation of Republican observers who really need to find something they can use to mobilise their side.  It seems to me that the incumbent party very often wins such open elections in traditionally safe districts by relatively narrow margins.  Roskam won 51-49 in a district that Henry Hyde had routinely won with more than 55% of the vote.  If we grant that Ogonowski was a much better candidate than Duckworth (and everyone will grant this), we should not be terribly surprised that he performed well against Paul Tsongas’ widow, who may have had the advantages of establishment and name recognition, but who evidently did not have a lot more than that as a candidate.

Update: Dig a little deeper, and the GOP boosting of this election makes even less sense.  Apparently, a good number of local progressives resented the party machine foisting Tsongas on the voters and sat the election out.  I’ve already noted the turnout gap between the two sides in this election, and this helps to explain some of it. 

Also, it’s worth noting that the Massachusetts Republican Party is a “shambles” right now.  One of the many knocks on Romney’s tenure is that he did little or no party-building when he was governor.  This represents a striking contrast with the Democrats in Ohio, who were surging after Kerry’s close loss in 2004 and who were in the process of selecting strong candidates for Senate and governor for ‘06 when Hackett made his failed challenge to Jean Schmidt.  Like Ogonowski, Hackett was a veteran with no prior political experience.  The Democrats were pinning their hopes as much on the symbolic appeal of a war veteran candidate as the Republicans were pinning theirs on the appeal of a relative of a 9/11 victim.  In the end, the voters who came out for the special election stuck with the incumbent party (and Schmidt narrowly retained her seat in ‘06 as well). 

Given what I’ve already said about the differences between the parties with respect to special election turnout, Hackett’s strong showing was evidence of a surging Democratic Party in Ohio while Ogonowski’s result is evidence of Northeastern Republicans in disarray.  If you check the electoral history of Ohio’s 2nd District (which is very easy to do these days, which makes me wonder why it seems that no one has bothered to do this), you can see that the drop-off in support for Schmidt in the special election relative to the level of support for Portman, the House member she was trying to replace, was huge.  Except for the ‘04 presidential year, when overall turnout in the district soared, Hackett’s special election result represented one of the best showings for a Democrat in that district in the last decade before ‘06.  He outperformed the Democratic candidate for the general in ‘02 and was within 10,000 votes of matching the 2000 Democratic candidate’s tally.  Schmidt meanwhile got only 26% of Portman’s 2004 votes, while Hackett held on to 63% of his ‘04 counterpart’s votes.  Schmidt’s performance relative to the strength of her predecessor was significantly worse than Tsongas’, and Hackett’s performance was significantly better than Ogonowski’s.  Republicans in Ohio were turning out at a rate so much lower than the norm for Republican voters in special elections that it was quite rightly taken as a sign of the GOPocalypse.