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Stirling Newberry: New Politicking in Ohio

New Politicking in Ohio

By Stirling Newberry
Wednesday 03 August 2005
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

When Representative Rob Portman resigned his seat in Congress to become a US trade representative, it seemed like the safest possible move: shore up the key state of Ohio for the Republicans, and promote a reliably reactionary member of the Republican Party. The Republican Primary was three times better attended than the Democratic one, and hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed in from right wing groups such as the "Club for Growth." They believed that "the primary is the general election," and that it was pure upside. They may be thinking twice tonight. No, Democrat Paul Hackett, Iraq war veteran and harsh critic of how the war has been run, did not win last night. But he came very, very close to upsetting the seemingly invincible Ohio Republican machine.

Ohio truly is the heartland of the Republican Party, going all the way back to its inception. No Republican has gotten a majority of the electoral college without Ohio. During the Republican dominance of the White House between the Civil War and the Great Depression, 7 of the Republican Presidents came from Ohio. And Ohio's second district is a bastion of that dominance. It went 63% for Bush in 2004, and it routinely re-elected Rep. Portman with 70% of the vote. Instead, Schmidt was often behind during the vote count, and won by only a few percent. It was almost as shocking as losing outright.

The problem, Schmidt's problem, is not merely that the Bushconomy has not been particularly kind to Ohio, nor that the Iraq War is particularly more unpopular there than elsewhere, it is that the underbelly of the Republican machine has ripped in Ohio wider than in most places. That scandal, involving Ohio Republican king pin Thomas W. Noe and the millions he lost in Ohio's public money, touched everyone. Even Jean Schmidt, who had connections to Noe. Only three days before the election, she was caught saying she didn't know him, when, in fact, she had met him at least twice. The Republican money machine, having managed to buy elections, very nearly gave one away.

When the dust cleared, Jean Schmidt had carried a district by 3,500 votes, or less than 4%. Even worse for the Republican Party's digestion is another statistic: in the Republican Primary, 45,000 people voted, and Jean Schmidt got 58,000 votes in the general election. Only 13,000 people not among the party faithful bothered to cast their ballots for her. Hackett, by contrast, got 54,000 votes, or almost 40,000 more than the Democratic Primary. If the swing vote, the moderates and not strongly committed voters, break three to one, that is the sign of an electoral tidal wave. This despite Schmidt outspending Hackett by nearly three to one.

The difference was the new politics: a combination of using the internet, including email, blogs and media, along with feet on the ground voter mobilization. High voter turnout was the key for Hackett scaring Schmidt. In essence the Schmidt campaign got the Republican Party faithful, and a few friends, to vote. Hackett tapped a deep vein of discontent. Hackett did not run as a Republican-lite candidate, but instead was forceful and forthright in his criticisms of Bush and the Iraq War. He'd been on the ground, and could talk with crisp authority about the lack of armor and infrastructure. Hackett attracted endorsements from General Wesley Clark and other politicians with a strong internet presence.

In the spring, there was a great deal of controversy over Howard Dean's proclaiming a "Fifty State Strategy." Ohio's Second District points to both why this idea is going to work, and how it can be made to work. The Republican Party's electoral success has come, in no small part, because they could focus resources on marginal races while still mounting challenges all over the country. With fewer safe zones, the Democrats had to both play defense and be much more careful about offense. Hackett's strong run, and the support he gained from all over the country, showed that Democrats running in Republican strongholds do not have to pull their horns in, but, instead, can go all out, without having to worry about losing.

Hackett is important in another respect: he is a forceful personality, charismatic, and exudes leadership. His campaign attracted top talent, including Bob Brigham of the Swing State Project. He and his campaign came up with a string of zingers: including "The Culture of Corruption." They were able to pull money, research and volunteerism from across the country. One example? When the Hackett campaign learned that Jean Schmidt was going to deny knowing Tom Noe, they went out and asked the internet for help. And the internet came through for them.

In short, last night's results left the House where it had been the day before; Schmidt, if anything, will be to the right of Portman. However, the implications of an 11% shift in Ohio-2 are massive. A shift of similar proportions across the country would sweep the Republicans from House and Senate in 2006. It would sweep them out of governorships and legislatures. Even if it is confined to Ohio and the upper Midwest, it would end their ability to become the kind of overwhelming majority party that has a mandate to radically remake American government. It is dangerous to draw too many lessons from small data points. After all, the Democrats used off-year elections to win two even more conservative districts during the last election cycle, but ended up losing ground in the general election. But the model, should the beltway establishment have the courage to use it, has been demonstrated.

Last night was another battle between the old hierarchical pyramid politics of the past, and the coming power of spheres of participation, and while Schmidt's pyramid posse made it out with a victory, it was a very near thing, and on their own home turf.


Stirling Newberry is an internet business and strategy consultant, with experience in international telecom, consumer marketing, e-commerce and forensic database analysis. He has acted as an advisor to Democratic political campaigns and organizations and is the the co-founder, along with Christopher Lydon, Jay Rosen and Matt Stoller, of BopNews, as well as being the military affairs editor of The Agonist.

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