Saturday, December 22, 2007

Looking South and Looking Forward

On Tuesday, December 11th, voters in the Ohio 5th Congressional District chose a new member of the House of Representatives. The incumbent, Congressman Paul Gillmor, was found dead on September 5th, leaving the seat open for a special election. The Ohio 5th is located in the northwest corner of the state, just to the south of Lenawee and Hillsdale Counties in the Michigan 7th.

Having lived in Michigan my entire life, I know the danger of ever suggesting to anyone that Michigan is anything like Ohio. It’s just not done. That said, I feel that the results from Tuesday and the overall course of the campaign leading up to those results offer us a glimpse of what might, perhaps, happen in the Michigan 7th come November 2008.

The Ohio 5th shares certain characteristics with the Michigan 7th. It’s a geographically large district, stretching across northwest Ohio, while being careful to exclude major Democratic-leaning population centers. Like the Michigan 7th, it’s gerrymandered to be an easy Republican win. It’s PVI is R+10, while the Michigan 7th’s is R+2.5, so it is more Republican than the 7th District, meaning that it should be easier for a Republican to get elected there than here. President Bush carried the mostly rural district with 61 percent of the vote, and in 2006, Congressman Gillmor was re-elected with 57 percent over under-funded Democratic challenger Robin Weirauch.

In the special election, Weirauch was the Democratic nominee once again, with no real opposition in the primary. Her opponent was state Representative Bob Latta, who had to overcome a fierce primary over a Club for Growth-sponsored Steve Buehrer. Sound familiar? Still, Latta is no Joe Schwarz, being more conservative and a much worse campaigner. After some grassroots energy and some encouraging polling, it looked like Weirauch might have a chance at winning, capitalizing on bitter Republican voters withholding their support from Latta.

I’ll spoil the ending for you, in case you didn’t already know it. Latta won, Weirauch lost, and the margin was roughly the same as the 2006 election (Latta 57 percent, Weirauch 43 percent). There were several Michigan bloggers doing work for the Weirauch campaign—most notably lpackard at Michigan Liberal—and if you’re interested, read what she wrote about her experience during the final days before the election (here, here, here, here, and here). It’s definitely worth checking out.

But the Democrat lost. Bummer, eh? Is it a sign, perhaps, that running against Walberg is a hopeless cause, because he’s got the advantages of incumbency and a gerrymandered district? Well, not so fast. In addition to the $508,000 that now-Congressman Latta spent, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent $537,038.24 in order to pay for a status quo victory.

So why is the amount that the NRCC spent so significant? Well, simply put, that was 21 percent of their total cash available, $2,513,816. The DCCC, in contrast, has $29,212,545 available to spend, and used less than one percent of their cash available (about $244,000) on this election.

In the past eight years, there have been 25 special House elections. Of those 25, only three resulted in a change of party. Special elections generally reflect the composition of the district, with a lower turnout and less attention paid to the national issues that could lead to a “wave” election as in 2006. While immune from the “wave” forces, however, they do potentially predict such waves in the election cycle which will follow. When Paul Hackett nearly won in the Ohio 2nd in 2005, it was a sign that even the most Republican seat could be in play.

Bob Latta didn’t almost lose the way that Jean Schmidt did in 2005. However, he did show us the price tag that comes with just an ordinary win. Unfortunately for the GOP, there just isn’t enough money to spend that much on every competitive district. When the NRCC is looking at which Republican-held districts are vulnerable, they’ll see the Michigan 7th. They’ll look at Tim Walberg’s lack-luster fundraising, they’ll look at Mark Schauer’s campaign, and they’ll look at Walberg’s performance thus far.

Does anyone think the NRCC would be willing to spend $500,000 to save a freshman in a blue state when there are so many open seats and senior members with strong Democratic challengers? Is it possible that the NRCC might do the math and count Tim Walberg as a loss?

I’m not saying Walberg won’t get any support from his party, but when their resources are so limited, is it worth it to put up a big fight to save one of the least important members of the caucus? With no sign of improvement in the NRCC’s finances, there’s a very real chance that Walberg could find himself on his own. Will the Club for Growth bail him out again?

Meanwhile, the DCCC is still targeting the Michigan 7th, and Mark Schauer had no trouble at all raising money in the third quarter. Walberg still has a big advantage as the incumbent in a gerrymandered district. But his advantages are slowly dwindling.

For those interested, Chris Bowers offers his explanation for why Weirauch lost. It’s good advice for messaging and issues in 2008, which any Democratic candidate should read—especially one in a district like ours.

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I am not sure there's much in these tea leaves to relate to the MI-07. Weirauch was a known quantity, having run before. She was out raised in the race, and never really attacked Latta on the issues.

The DCCC tried to do a piggyback ad on an Ohio issue that worked for them in the past: "Coingate". But their charges were a bit trumped up and couldn't stick to Latta. Other attacks seemed to be dated, Weirauch and the DCCC couldn't find a penetrating message.

Weirauch's campaign message applied a 2006 message to 2007, and it didn't mesh. The "Washington is broken, I am the cure" message doesn't ring so true when it's your party in charge of Congress.

In the end, she couldn't overcome favorite son Bob Latta, whose father was congressman for the area before Gilmor. In fact Bob Latta came within 27 votes of defeating Gilmor in 1988.

If there is any comparison is that Gilmor was more like moderates Joe Schwarz and Fred Upton. Gilmor was reviled for not being more like his more conservative constituents, and had a Primary fight in 2002 reminiscent of the Upton/Shughrs fight that same year.

As for why the GOP spent so much...I think it was because they did not want a Jean Schmidt style near-embarrassment. I didn't think it was likely, but special elections are weird and unpredictable some times.

I disagree with Chris Bowers insight. The polling on Iraq has been tracking down as an issue of importance. Most presidential candidates are moving on from it. Especially in the Rust Belt, the economy trumps Iraq every time.

Schauer needs to find a way to play in the southern tier of the district. Until he does, this is still Walberg's race to lose.
And to add to the above post, there was a pretty damaging news article on both Schauer and Walberg when it comes to campaign finances.

Most of the Walberg news was a rehash though, except for him taking his wife on a CFG funded cruise.

But it definitely sounds like the worst is yet to come for Schauer.

Any bets how long into the New Year before he gets Schauer gets hit on his "illegal" fundraising?

That's why Walberg won't need the NRCC's money to save his bacon. He'll just rely on others to continue digging up dirt on Schauer and then count on the fact that this is a Republican district.

And in that way, Fitzy is right...Michigan will end repeating Ohio's mistake.

Looks like the FEC has cleared Walberg on any violation... I suppose this was in response to Demas' article:

Setting it Straight

The Federal Elections Commission has found in favor of U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, in the two campaign finance complaints filed against him by Schwarz for Congress. Because of inaccurate information provided to the Enquirer, a column on Page 8A Dec. 14 said the FEC was still investigating.
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