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I went back to Ohio and my party was gone

By W. James Antle III
web posted August 8, 2005

In an odd-numbered year and a season when most Americans ordinarily take a vacation from politics, partisans on both sides are busily spinning the results of the recent special election in Ohio’s Second Congressional District.

Second District candidate, Republican Jean Schmidt, talks to supporters after winning a special election in Cincinnati on August 2
Second District candidate, Republican Jean Schmidt, talks to supporters after winning a special election in Cincinnati on August 2

Republican Jean Schmidt edged out Democrat Paul Hackett by 52 percent to 48 percent. The district is reliably conservative and the House seat’s former occupant, Republican Rob Portman, had in recent elections collected upwards of 70 percent of the vote.

What gives? Democrats claim that this shows the GOP’s underlying weakness going into the 2006 midterm elections. A DNC fundraising letter released in Howard Dean’s name called it an “unprecedented result” that “shows Americans are hungry for change.” No seat is safe anymore as voters increasingly tire of the Bush administration and Republican policies. As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.

Republicans, for their part, suggest that Democrats should gloat a little less about losing an election. As an NRA member and Iraq war veteran, Hackett wasn’t exactly a liberal straight out of central casting. Eric Pfeiffer notes in National Review Online that from 1998 to 2004, Portman had been running against a weak perennial candidate. With less than 30 percent turnout, Hackett only improved upon that candidate’s showing by “a grand total of 6,783 votes.”

So which is the more useful indicator – the fact that a Democratic candidate who called President Bush a “son of a bitch” can win 48 percent of the vote in a Republican district, or the GOP’s success in retaining this House seat?

Democrats may well be overstating the import of Congresswoman-elect Schmidt’s feeble performance, but there might yet be lessons for Republicans in the Buckeye State and nationwide. The first and most obvious pertains to the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war.

The poll results bear this out: the country is questioning our Iraq adventure and has grown bearish on its prospects for success. These numbers are dragging Bush down more generally and have the potential to do the same to other Republicans seen as too closely tied to the administration’s Iraq policy.

But the Iraq war wasn’t the only albatross with which Jean Schmidt had to contend. She was burdened also by her state’s unpopular Republican Gov. Bob Taft, who has totally changed what it means to be a “Bob Taft Republican” from his grandfather’s days.

For two years running, Taft has earned an F on the Cato Institute’s fiscal-policy performance report card. Each time, he was the lowest-scoring Republican evaluated.

Taft has presided over increased spending and boosts in gasoline, alcohol and cigarette taxes. His 2003 tax plan would have offset slight income tax-rate cuts with an expansion of the sales-tax base that many analysts considered to be a net tax increase for Ohioans.

Thus, Taft has failed to deliver on the lowest common denominator Republican issues of low taxes and fiscal discipline. Why then should the people of Ohio vote Republican? To have big government, rising taxes and extravagant spending managed by politicians with R’s beside their names rather than D’s?

Schmidt did not recognize this as a liability. Rather than run from Taft’s record, she embraced it. Indeed, she showed herself to be that new kind of Bob Taft Republican with her own lackluster stand on taxes.

The supply-side Club for Growth conducted an ad campaign criticizing Schmidt’s tax-hiking record in the Ohio state legislature. The organization’s president, Pat Toomey, said that any one of her primary opponents would have been “highly preferable” on “the issues of taxes and spending.” (One of those opponents, Pat DeWine, saw his chances to defeat her weakened in part by the participation of his father, Sen. Mike DeWine, in the judicial filibuster compromise.)

Again and again, we hear that if Republicans are to act as a politically mature governing party – a “majority party in full,” to borrow New York Times columnist David Brooks’ phrase – they must set aside their small-government principles. We see in Ohio under the Taft administration the consequences of that advice: Republicans control everything in the state, but their majority has calcified and is beginning to alienate its erstwhile supporters.

This is why Ken Blackwell, the Ohio secretary of state running for the 2006 GOP gubernatorial nomination, promises primary voters that he will not be “the second coming of Bob Taft.” But Blackwell is held at arm’s length by the Republican establishment.

At least two things are clear. The GOP isn’t going to get very far selling voters big government and an unpopular war. And they don’t make Tafts like they used to.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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