But operatives from both parties acknowledge that Tuesday’s special election match-up between Republican Jim Ogonowski and Democrat Niki Tsongas, to replace retiring Rep. Martin Meehan (D), is unexpectedly close — and that an Ogonowski victory, or even a close call, could give other GOP candidates some important tips on how to win in 2008.
Ogonowski, a farmer, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and brother of the pilot of American Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, has predictably distanced himself from President Bush and the unpopular war in Iraq.
But he has also added a theme that could help GOP hopefuls next year, particularly those competing for open seats: a relentless chorus of complaints about the competency of Congress and the culture of Washington in general.
“This election is clearly a referendum on our Congress — it’s not working for us,” Ogonowski said in an interview last week. “I’ve been asking every single group I meet in front of, ‘Anyone here like the job Congress is doing?’ I have yet to have a person in the Fifth District tell me they like it.”
As a Republican running in a solidly Democratic district that hasn’t elected a Republican since 1972, Ogonowski faces a decidedly tough challenge. He lost the fundraising battle by at least 4 to 1: As of Sept. 26, Tsongas had raised $1.93 million, compared with $434,000 for Ogonowski.
But his anti-Washington message, his decision to downplay his Republican affiliation and his compelling biography appear to have put him within striking distance of Tsongas.
The final polls in the race showed Tsongas, the widow of the late Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas (also a former Fifth District congressman), leading in the mid- to high single digits. Political observers here say the race will hinge on which side can most effectively turn out voters in an off-year special election.
There couldn’t be a bigger contrast between the two candidates’ campaigns. While Tsongas casts the election as a referendum on Bush’s policies — a strategy that worked for many Democratic candidates in 2006 — Ogonowski aggressively portrays himself as a populist outsider in an effort to meet the new mood that seems to be enveloping the national electorate: a pox on all houses in Washington.
Chomping on a ham-and-cheese omelet at the local Dream diner, he told well-wishers stopping by that he’s running because of the mess in Washington and referred to Tsongas as “Queen Niki,” suggesting that she feels entitled to the House seat.
Ogonowski also switched from the standard 2006 GOP playbook by emphasizing two issues he believes will play well in the district: extending Bush’s tax cuts and fighting illegal immigration.
Tsongas, meanwhile, has no qualms associating herself with her party’s leadership.
She brought in former President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for fundraisers, netting the campaign about $225,000.
The state’s leading political icon, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), campaigned with her last Wednesday, touting her opposition to the war in Iraq and support for the children’s health insurance legislation that Bush vetoed.
“I can imagine no better way to begin my service in Congress than to go to Washington and vote to override that veto,” Tsongas said. Her campaign has criticized Ogonowski for not taking a firm position on the SCHIP bill.
“All of us understand how important this race is. The eyes of Massachusetts, the eyes of the country are on this race,” Kenndy said, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Tsongas at a Haverhill diner.
Tsongas supports setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Ogonowski has called the invasion of Iraq a mistake but says a withdrawal of U.S. forces would be “cowardly” until Iraq is stabilized.
Tsongas’ emphasis on core Democratic issues would normally be a clear winner in a district that voted for presidential nominees John Kerry and Al Gore by large margins.
But there also is a strain of populism evident among blue-collar voters in the district. Call them Reagan Democrats — they may be against the war and for government programs, but they’re suspicious of candidates with upscale backgrounds, and also may find Ogonowski’s stands on tax cuts and immigration attractive.
At the federal level, the district has shown its anti-elitist tendencies. President Ronald Reagan won here twice by comfortable margins. The district voted for President George H.W. Bush over home-state governor Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Kerry lost his first congressional campaign here in 1972, running against an opponent who highlighted his congressional testimony against the Vietnam War.
The most recent polls in the race show Ogonowski trailing by narrow margins. A SurveyUSA poll released last week shows Tsongas maintaining a 51 percent to 42 percent lead over Ogonowski. The automated poll surveyed 457 likely voters from Oct. 8 to 10.
An internal Republican poll conducted in early October shows the race even tighter — with Tsongas leading Ogonowski by only five points, 44 percent to 39 percent.
Given that turnout is notoriously unpredictable in special elections, neither campaign is taking anything for granted. Both campaigns are struggling to ensure that frequent voters know there is a special election today — and not in November, when the rest of the local elections are held.
In the final week before the election, both campaigns have also been hitting the airwaves reinforcing their themes.
Ogonowski launched a biographical advertisement featuring a photo of his brother’s hijacked plane hitting the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. In the ad, his sister-in-law, Peg, said that Ogonowski “came in and just stepped right up to the bat” after the terrorist attack to help his brother’s family.
“It is one of the better ads I’ve ever seen — including presidential races,” said Massachusetts GOP consultant Holly Robichaud.
Tsongas’ latest advertisements emphasize her desire to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, and accuse Ogonowski of wanting to keep troops in Iraq “indefinitely.”
She also has benefited from third-party groups advertising on her behalf. EMILY’s List, which supports female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, spent $125,000 on radio ads in the region linking Ogonowski with Bush.
The Service Employees International Union’s political action committee aired an advertisement criticizing Ogonowski’s position on the SCHIP legislation.
Ogonowski is hoping that, despite being outspent significantly, his tireless campaigning and populist message will prevail. Between door-to-door canvassing in Lowell, he grew animated when talking about his opponent’s high-powered support.
“Look at her campaign — when I think of who she’s bringing in, I have to focus to the left. Bill Clinton, Pelosi, Kerry, Kennedy, Barney Frank!” said Ogonowski, nearly falling over as he leaned to the left.
It is an unconventional attack in a district that itself has so often tilted to the Democratic side.
But if it works, it could embolden a whole new crop of GOP candidates to take a page out of Ogonowski’s anti-Washington playbook.