Looking for Clues From a 2005 Special Election in Ohio

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 23, 2017 · 3:27 PM EDT

Are Democrats in the early stages of their own tea party movement? It’s one of the biggest outstanding questions at this point in the cycle. But as we collectively look at the past for prologue, I don’t understand why our memories only go back eight years.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Democrats were out of the White House and in the minority in both chambers of Congress, and a demoralizing presidential election loss helped jump-start a movement back to the majority.

The initial focus this year is on the special election to replace former Republican Rep. Tom Price in Georgia’s 6th District, one of four vacant seats created by President Donald Trump’s Cabinet selections.

Trump narrowly carried the suburban Atlanta district over Hillary Clinton 48-47 percent last fall. That result has drawn national Democratic and media interest, even though the partisan lean of the district is probably closer to Price’s 62-38 percent victory last fall or Mitt Romney’s 61-38 percent margin over President Barack Obama in 2012.

But that doesn’t mean Democrats can’t come close in the June special election runoff.

In 2005, Democrats were reeling after losing the previous year’s presidential election to unpopular incumbent George W. Bush. When Bush subsequently selected GOP Rep. Rob Portman to be United States trade representative, Ohio’s 2nd District seat opened up for a special election.

Republicans shouldn’t have had to worry about the southern Ohio district, which stretched from the Cincinnati suburbs east to Portsmouth. Democrats hadn’t held the seat in 30 years and Bush had drubbed John Kerry in the district 64-36 percent just a few months earlier.

Former state Rep. Jean Schmidt survived a crowded GOP primary field with 31 percent against former Rep. Bob McEwen, state Rep. Tom Brinkman, Sen. Mike DeWine’s son, and seven others while Paul Hackett, a lawyer and former Milford city councilman, won the Democratic nomination with less drama.

In the special general election, the combination of Bush and Hackett’s military service in Iraq with the Marines Corps Reserves helped the race gain national attention. It was one of the first contests to capture the interest of the liberal “netroots” blogging community and was one of the first elections held under the reign of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and his “50-State strategy.”

Schmidt won the August 2, 2005 special election narrowly, 52-48 percent, and both sides rushed to frame the results. Democrats asserted that the result (compared to Portman’s 43-point victory in 2004) was clear evidence of a larger movement heading into the 2006 midterms while Republicans dismissed it as a low-turnout special election in an off-year.

In the end, Democrats were right. Even though Republicans won special elections in 2005 and 2006 in all three districts they previously held (California’s 48th and 50th were the others), Democrats gained 30 seats in November 2006 and retook the House majority.

Democratic strategists are careful to avoid setting expectations too high for next year while trying to harness the energy that’s followed from Trump’s inauguration. Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff, 30, has capitalized on the opportunity by raising millions of dollars, largely from liberal activists across the country, for his 6th District campaign.

Ossoff isn’t a perfect candidate (he apparently doesn’t live in the district and is easily tied to liberal Democrats through donations and endorsements), but neither was Hackett. The Ohio Democrat had a notoriously short temper and even referred to President Bush as the son of a female dog to USA Today. But that brashness is part of what resonated with the Democratic base at the time.

The mood of the Democratic Party isn’t all that different now.

“The wounds are so fresh and raw,” said one veteran Democratic strategist. “There is venomous anger on the Democratic side because of Trump.”

“People are so amped because this is the first election outlet to channel it somewhere,” the strategist added.

But there is a risk of getting too emotionally and financially tied to a specific special election result. If some Democrats convince themselves that Georgia’s 6th is winnable and they fall short, it could dampen enthusiasm and even hinder candidate recruitment elsewhere.

But Hackett’s loss is just one reason to avoid jumping to conclusions based on special elections. Stu recently wrote about the May 2010 special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th District. Democrats won that competitive race just six months before losing 63 seats nationwide and the House majority.

“Special elections rarely do good things for morale,” said the Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “They are such a time, money, and emotional suck. The results are exaggerated one way or the other. People get sad or happy.”

In reality, it’s just one seat and there is a temptation to “over-learn” lessons from an individual race which took place under conditions that aren’t easily replicated. Just be warned that no matter the results in Georgia or the other special elections, exaggeration will be a common theme. And it’s OK to wait until next year to project the national political climate.