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All Political Eyes Again Turn to Ohio

Times Staff Writer

An unexpectedly close finish in an Ohio congressional special election reverberated through both parties Wednesday, as each side searched for clues in a race that could foreshadow next year’s midterm elections.

In Tuesday’s vote, Republican Jean Schmidt, a former state lawmaker, held off Democratic lawyer Paul Hackett, a Marine reservist who served in the Iraq war.

They were vying for the House seat vacated by Republican Rob Portman, who was named U.S. trade representative this year by President Bush.

Democrats argued that Tuesday’s close race -- Schmidt defeated Hackett 51.7% to 48.3% in a staunchly Republican district in which Portman routinely won by huge margins -- could foreshadow a backlash in 2006 against the GOP congressional majority.

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“This is a political shockwave,” said Bill Burton of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The fact that even reliably Republican voters could not be counted on ... should make every Republican member of Congress feel that they are put on notice.”

Most Republicans publicly insisted that Democrats were wrong to see signs of a tail wind in the outcome.

“There’s one big problem with their theory: They lost,” said Carl Forti, the communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

But some independent analysts said Republicans would be wrong to ignore Hackett’s strong performance in the conservative district in the Cincinnati area, after a campaign in which he called the president a “chicken hawk” and sharply criticized his handling of the Iraq war.

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“If I were a Republican in 49 other states, I would be a little concerned that a message of ‘Don’t elect a rubber stamp for President Bush’ seemed to resonate very well” in this district, said Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst in Washington who focuses on congressional races.

One prominent Republican fundraiser said the result generated a “huge buzz” of concern among party activists Wednesday, especially considering that Hackett criticized the Iraq war so forcefully.

“Sure it’s a warning signal,” said the fundraiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing private conversations inside the party.

Added a senior GOP strategist, who also spoke on condition of anonymity: “In a district that Republican, these are things you should take very seriously.”

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The race’s most immediate effect may be on the strategy of congressional Democrats.

The close result is likely to increase pressure on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to recruit and finance serious challengers in more Republican-leaning districts next year -- already a favorite cause of many liberal Internet activists.

Hackett’s strong showing may also encourage sharper criticism of the Iraq war, said one senior Democratic congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing party strategy.

Special elections are often unpredictable because -- as was the case in Tuesday’s vote -- turnout is usually much lower than for regular elections. But the parties watch special elections closely because they sometimes capture the first tremors of approaching political earthquakes.

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As Cook noted in a column in the National Journal magazine this week, the victory by Republican Ron Lewis in May 1994 in a longtime Democratic district in Kentucky represented the first trickle in the current that carried the GOP to control of both chambers that November.

Strategists in the White House and among Capitol Hill Republicans attributed the close result less to any national tide than to local factors and the dynamics of special elections.

Privately, some also criticized the performance of Schmidt, who narrowly captured a crowded Republican primary in June.

“I think it means nothing for next year,” said one GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking.

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Forti said special elections typically produced close results because they came at unusual times and often involved relatively little-known candidates.

He noted that four House Republicans who had prevailed in tight special elections since 1999 won much more decisive reelections.

If outside factors influenced the race, some Republicans argued, it was more likely a backlash against the scandal-ridden administration of Ohio Republican Gov. Robert A. Taft than against Bush or the Iraq war.

The GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking said private Republican polling said Bush still had a 60% approval rating in the district, which comprises mainly suburbs and rural areas east of Cincinnati. That figure is far above his national average.

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Cook, the independent political analyst, said he agreed that voter anger toward the Taft administration was probably the largest factor in Schmidt’s close call.

Indeed, ads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aired in the campaign’s final days attempted to link Schmidt to Taft, not Bush.

Authorities are investigating why at least $12 million of Ohio’s investment fund for injured workers is missing.

But Cook said discontent over Iraq and the nation’s general direction also played a role. He noted that Hackett emphasized he would not be a “rubber stamp” for the president.

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“That line really worked because it raises questions about Iraq and [Bush’s push for restructuring] Social Security that unites the two strongest arguments Democrats have right now, with people questioning the president’s judgment,” Cook said.

Schmidt, a staunch social conservative, emphasized her ties to the president.

“We need to stand with President Bush on the war on terror and to support our troops fighting for us in Iraq,” she said in an ad that featured her with the president.

Hackett, a major in the Marine Corps Reserves who served seven months in Iraq, described the war as a mistake “that damaged our credibility throughout the world and squandered our political capital.”

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Hackett lacerated Bush over his management of the war in unusually caustic terms, even once describing the president as “that SOB in the White House.”

But Hackett, who would have been the first veteran of the war to serve in Congress, opposed withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

And his radio and television ads did not criticize Bush. To the contrary, Hackett’s first television ad opened with footage of Bush in a recent speech asking Americans to serve in the armed forces.

“I agreed with that, and that’s what led me to serve and fight with my Marines in Iraq,” Hackett said in the ad.

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Such language led Republicans to argue Wednesday that Hackett ran a two-track campaign that stressed anti-Bush arguments to the national media to generate support on the Internet -- liberal blogs actively promoted and raised funds for his campaign -- while downplaying partisan differences in the district.

“He ran a totally separate campaign inside the district,” Forti said.

Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for Hackett’s campaign, said that “was an incredibly inaccurate description” of his strategy.

“To say he wrapped himself in the president is just untrue,” she said. “Look at every public statement the guy made in the last three or four weeks of the campaign. He was openly critical of the president when everyone was telling him it wasn’t a smart thing to do in the district.”

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