Republican officials immediately pointed to the issue of immigration, an increasingly pivotal theme in contests across the nation as well as in the presidential primary race, as a key factor in their Ohio victory.
"Republicans will say they’ve found their silver bullet on the issue of immigration. This issue is very tangible and provides a great-short term gain for GOP candidates," said David Wasserman, the House analyst for the Cook Political Report.
State legislator Bob Latta decisively defeated Democrat Robin Weirauch in Ohio’s 5th District, leading by 56 to 43 percent with 90 percent of the vote in. The special election was held to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor (R).
In Virginia’s 1st District, GOP state Del. Rob Wittman won a landslide victory over Iraq war veteran Phil Forgit (D) in the race to succeed the late Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R).
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Wittman had 61 percent of the vote, while Forgit had only tallied 37 percent.
The story of the evening was Latta’s victory, however, given signs in recent weeks that the reliably Republican district, based in Bowling Green, was in danger of falling into Democratic hands.
The victory was not cheap for the GOP, as, in fact, both party campaign committees spent sizable sums to contest the race. The National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee spent $428,000 – nearly one-fifth of their entire cash-on-hand – but played a key role in making sure the seat remained in the GOP column.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $244,000 on ads tying Latta to scandal-plagued former GOP governor Bob Taft and jailed lobbyist Tom Noe.
State Democrats also dispatched popular Gov. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to help campaign for Weirauch in the campaign’s final week. And labor activists from throughout the state poured into the district to help the Weirauch campaign.
Geography played a key role in Latta’s victory. The congressman-elect hails from Wood County, the most populous and competitive in the district, and won 55 percent of the vote there. By contrast, Gillmor only carried 51 percent of the vote there in his 2006 victory.
But National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole also credited Latta’s tough message on border security and holding the line on taxes for the victory. Weirauch had tried to run a populist campaign focused largely on jobs and trade – and if that message didn’t work in Ohio, where the GOP brand has been badly tarnished in recent years, it could be a warning to Democrats that a strictly economic message may not have great national resonance.
A tough stand on immigration also was seen as forcing an unexpectedly close race in a September special election in a solidly Democratic Massachusetts district that was ultimately won by Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass), who had made her opposition to the war in Iraq a key campaign issue.
“This campaign became a cause célèbre for national Democrats and liberal activists nationwide, but in the end, Bob’s anti-illegal immigration, anti-tax hike message won the day,” Cole said in a statement.
“The people of Ohio’s Fifth Congressional District elected a representative in Bob Latta who will stand up for their values in Washington.”
A veteran Ohio GOP campaign operative said the reason for Latta’s win was due more to 11th-hour help from Republican officials in Washington than any overarching issue.
“I’d give 90 percent of the credit to the National Republican Congressional Committee and the RNC for their efforts,” said the operative, requesting anonymity. “The campaign really had to be more or less saved in te last moments. It was the get-out-the-vote, 72-hour effort that they did in the last moments that did it.”
Democrats tried to argue that Republicans had at least been forced to spend heavily to defend a normally safe seat. “Tom Cole and the NRCC spending 20 percent of their cash on hand to retain one of the most Republican districts in the country – priceless,” said DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)
Latta’s margin of victory was essentially the same as Gillmor’s in 2006, when he won 57 percent of the vote.
In Virginia, neither party’s congressional campaign committee spent much money in the district, but the NRCC had spent money to produce a campaign ad, which they never aired.
The district has been reliably Republican, giving President Bush 60 percent of the vote in 2004. But even conservative parts of the Old Dominion have trended in a Democratic direction recently, and Gov. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and former governor Mark Warner campaigned alongside Forgit over the last week.