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Campaign Lessons for 2008

Posted on Oct 18, 2007

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON—The narrow victory of Democrat Niki Tsongas in a special congressional election in Massachusetts offers warnings to both Republicans and Democrats for 2008.

    Her victory speaks to the continuing unpopularity of President Bush and the war in Iraq. But her less than robust margin over Republican Jim Ogonowski—she won 51 percent to his 45 percent, with minor party candidates taking the rest—tells Democrats they cannot assume that Bush’s low standing will turn the road to next year’s elections into easy street. Individual candidates can still trump party affiliation, and sleeper issues can catch politicians by surprise.

    In Massachusetts’ Fifth Congressional District—a collection of mill towns and affluent and blue-collar suburbs north of Boston—the surprise issue was illegal immigration. Ogonowski made it the centerpiece of an anti-Washington campaign. An Ogonowski news release, for example, accused Tsongas of being “committed to giving cheap college to illegals at taxpayer expense.”

    Tsongas, a community college dean, favored granting in-state tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants. In Ogonowski’s translation, Tsongas believed that “Massachusetts taxpayers should foot the bill for the college tuition of the children of illegals.”

    Republicans think the immigration issue helped Ogonowski, so the country may be in for a lot more of this sort of thing next year. “Everywhere we went, people wanted to talk about immigration,” said Matt Wylie, Ogonowski’s general consultant. “It was just coming up over and over again.”


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    The personal played, too. Ogonowski, an affable hay farmer and retired Air Force and Air National Guard officer, was well suited to the populist, anti-Washington campaign that national Republicans hoped would provide a template for their candidates in 2008. His brother John, an American Airlines pilot, was killed when his hijacked plane was flown into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Ogonowski cast himself as the regular guy facing a political pro.

    Tsongas, a lawyer whose experience in politics dates back to Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign, is the wife of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, beloved in his old district, particularly in Lowell, the hometown he helped revive with the creative use of federal aid. His popularity propelled Niki Tsongas into an early lead, but there was grumbling that her name was her principal asset.

    The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and national liberal groups sensed early on that the contest was far from a lock and poured in money, people and advice. Jennifer Crider, the DCCC’s communications director, said final tallies will show that the Tsongas side outspent Ogonowski and his allies by about 4 to 1.

    Democratic strategists were not only worried that Ogonowski was running a better campaign than Tsongas. They also noticed that the district was one of the least Democratic in a very blue state. Many of its nominal Democrats are Reagan Democrats.

    “There are different shades of blue,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chair of the DCCC, “and this one is a very light shade.” In 2006, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick carried the state by a landslide but won less than 51 percent in the fifth. Three former Republican governors, Mitt Romney, Paul Cellucci and Bill Weld, carried the district outright.

    But this time, the Democrats had three trump cards: Bush, Iraq, and the president’s veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP.

    Ogonowski tried to get around Bush. He said he did not want the president campaigning for him. His ads cast him as “not a partisan politician.” His pollster, Rob Autry, said it was no accident that the Republican ran not so much against Congress as against Washington as a whole.

    But this could not immunize his candidacy from what Autry said was “an issue that, unfortunately, has resonance.” The pollster described the “issue” with a compound word: “Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld.” On Iraq, Ogonowski said the war was a mistake, but was far less clear than Tsongas on withdrawing troops. She made ending the war a central theme of her campaign.

    The Republican’s final mistake was not taking a firm stand against Bush’s SCHIP veto, which Tsongas roundly condemned. This, said Autry, “provided Tsongas with an example of where Ogonowski supported Bush’s position.” With health care as a rallying cry, Tsongas brought more than enough Democrats home.

    A Tsongas loss might have justified the National Republican Congressional Committee’s postelection spin that “the political tide has turned” since 2006. In fact, the issues that worked in 2006 came through again this week, and children’s health care is now an additional Republican burden.

    But Tsongas’ victory was harder than it should have been. Any Democrat still complacent about 2008 should go over the returns from Paul Tsongas’ old district.   

    E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)  

    © 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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By Conservative Yankee, October 27, 2007 at 6:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

109848 by Gildell on 10/26 at 7:09 pm

“The one question that Dionne doesn’t address is the role that low turnout driven by complacency played in the final results.  Even towns that came out in strength for Tsongas did not see high turnout.”

I can’t speak about the district as a whole, BUT Lawrence (just up the road) has always been a low voter town. 65% hispanic, and not one hispanic official in City government (except on the school committee.

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By Gildell, October 26, 2007 at 8:09 pm Link to this comment
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DigDug is right.  There was a good progressive in the race early, long before Tsongas.  The party leadership united behind her early and poured in the beltway insiders. (Pelosi staffers were here working the campaign against Ogonowski).  Tsongas was never an inspiring candidate.  Her name recognition made the difference in many ways, but because she was viewed by many as riding Paul’s coattails I don’t think she motivated people deeply.  Progressives united behind her, and in a sense their energy and numbers probably made the difference in the campaign.

It is also true that the immigration issue plays well for conservatives in the district. But the real reason probably has more to do with the fact that the large towns with large undocumented populaitons are also towns that have lost large number of manufacturing jobs in the last 30 years, leaving working people with few choices.  A well-funded progressive campaign that had good access to these communities probably could have been pursuasive, but Tsongas’ organization in Lowell sucked all the air out of the race, and there was not money or volunteers for Eldridge.

The one question that Dionne doesn’t address is the role that low turnout driven by complacency played in the final results.  Even towns that came out in strength for Tsongas did not see high turnout.  It is reasonable to suspect many non voters stayed away on the assumption that Tsongas’ election was a foregone conclusion based on her name recognition and her husband’s.  reputation.

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By rodney, October 24, 2007 at 12:57 pm Link to this comment
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This election will be a election of change. That’s why so many republicans have decided not to run for reelection. Some democrats should be afraid also. George Bush have ruined the republican party. I’m glad because I’m a democrat. Fear will no longer be a issue. 9-11 will no longer be a issue. What will be at issue is the reckless war spending and the greed from war profiteering. The next Administration needs to go to Iraq and find out who stole and looted the US treasury and bring our troops home while they are at it, Then bring everyone in the Bush Administration up on charges of treason and war crimes. Only then will we get our country back

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By Conservative Yankee, October 20, 2007 at 12:59 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I seriously wonder if the people who write this tripe ever venture out into the real world? 

There are three Glaring misstatements in this piece. There is also a HUGH omission.

1) “The Republican’s final mistake was not taking a firm stand against Bush’s SCHIP veto, which Tsongas roundly condemned. This, said Autry, “provided Tsongas with an example of where Ogonowski supported Bush’s position.” With health care as a rallying cry, Tsongas brought more than enough Democrats home.”

SCHIP is a zero-sum issue in Massachusetts as all of the Commonwealth’s children have health Insurance.

2.)“Sen. Paul Tsongas, beloved in his old district, particularly in Lowell, the hometown he helped revive with the creative use of federal aid. His popularity propelled Niki Tsongas into an early lead, but there was grumbling that her name was her principal asset.”

Tsongas may have been beloved in Lowell, but in the next Mill towns up the road he was despised. The people of Lawrence and Haverhill have had their fill of political promises from both parties resulting in years of neglect.
Paul Tsongas “help” in “reviving” Lowell was ...hummm shall we say minuscule?  Mike Dukakis, and An Wang revitalized Lowell, mostly with PRIVATE funds.

3.) Immigration is NOT a new or transient issue in the old mill towns of Massachusetts “north shore.” This concern has been a festering political sore for a long time. The textile mills in their endless search for CHEAP labor have been importing (not attracting) illegals for decades. Lawrence 10 miles north of Lowell) is packed with folks without documentation. the social service, educational, and health care systems have been staggering under the weight of illegals for DECADES!!

In 1987, Lawrence was the most Hispanic city in the nation having a full 64% of the voting population Hispanic.  Drugs, Prostitution, and other crime is rampant. Lawrence is the car-theft capital of the country. People who lived there in the Seventies (of all races) left if they could afford to. The real estate prices plummeted.  As taxpayers left, social service clients arrived.  The once livable city is now a slum. 

Were I living in that district, I would NEVER vote for a Kennedy, Brooke, Tsongas, or Kerry. They all let this happen.

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By G.Anderson, October 20, 2007 at 8:17 am Link to this comment

Like European royalty, Democrat and Republican incest and intermarriage, have weakened the blood line of America’s political system.

Neither party seems much concerned with what the “peasants” are doing on the plantation, as long as the plantation owners keep on making those political donations.

American’s are looking for action and reform and they will vote for it.

But if their representatives don’t deliver on their promises, they shouldn’t expect blind party loyalty anymore.

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By Stephen Smoliar, October 20, 2007 at 8:10 am Link to this comment

I am not sure I have seen the American Party on any ballot I have cast (but I HAVE seen their Web site).  The very first Presidential election in which I voted was 1968;  and I voted Peace and Freedom (Dick Gregory), because I knew I could not count on either Democrats or Republicans to get us out to the Vietnam mess.  Since I was living in California in 1980, where the Presidential election had been decided before I got to the polls, I voted for John Anderson to make sure that he received enough votes to be recognized as “legitimate” by the electoral authorities.

In the last Congressional election, I voted for one of the “minor” candidates opposing Pelosi.  I just had too many suspicions (which seem to have been confirmed).  I knew she had the election in the bag, so I did not feel I was thwarting the effort to break the Republican majority in the Congress.  However, I wanted Pelosi to realize that, even among registered Democrats, her support was not solid.

These days I tend to prefer leaders who have a good sense of what Isaiah Berlin called “political judgement.”

I would not be surprised if Clinton ends up offering the best fit to Berlin’s criteria, whatever my personal feelings about many of her positions may be.  Fortunately, I do not have to be in a rush to make my choice;  and I appreciate having the luxury of time for deliberation!

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By DennisD, October 19, 2007 at 6:56 pm Link to this comment
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Reid, Pelosi and the rest of the useless Democrats in Congress will pay in 08 for their empty promises of 06

I hope voters have a long memory but experience says otherwise. It’s long past time to put the American Party in power and rid ourselves of these stooges once and for all.

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By ctbrandon, October 19, 2007 at 3:58 pm Link to this comment

Thanks for the URL Stephen, I appreciate people who take the time to search out the facts for themselves, and help to keep others informed. Much appreciated.


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By rage, October 19, 2007 at 3:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The Dems are going to keep on dealing ridiculously badly with the Repug devils until we vote them out again. I’m beyond disgusted with Pelosi and Reid, and this whipped pack of spineless cowards who are selling us out to Bush literally for nothing. That Repugs are wicked is canon. But, we elected in a Dem majority in both the Congress and the Senate, and have gotten JACK for it. Things are pathetically worse now than when Dumya first cheated his way into office.

Dumya the pinhead is yet relevant when he should a quadrplegic duck on a scooter with a fried battery and a broken joystick. The Dems have instead strengthened Dumya Duck with titanium bionic prosthetics and a chauffered Lincoln Towne Car limo, hoping this rascal won’t get more drunk with power and drive our liberty and freedom into oblivion. Meanwhile, We the outraged People can’t even get bus tokens, with gas prices edging ever closer to $100 a barrel. S-CHIP yanked. The Iraq surge extended. Reid is going behind Dodd’s back on witholding telecom immunity from prosecution for the spying on customers. The Patriot Act expanded. Blackwater. Halliburton. Gonzales getting immunity and a lawyer. Carter calling us out for our torture. On and on and on it swirls on down the drain. We’re just screwed, thanks to Congress’ constantly caving in to the will of the Chimperor.

The Democrats deserve to be booted out. Any other nation in the free world would have made a run on Congress by now. So, E.J.Dionne is right on the money on this one. I expect this Democratic Congress is going to find some way to make America forget what a pinhead Dumya has been, just to implant some spine into the body politic.

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By digdug, October 19, 2007 at 11:11 am Link to this comment
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My understanding is Tsongas’  weak showing was largely due to her being annointed as the Democratic candidate by the Democratic party establishment.  Supposedly, a very good progressive candidate was running, but the party establishment went with Tsongas (a lackluster candidate) because of their entrenched thinking and interests.

This is another key point to make for progressives.  Push the progressive candidates in the primary elections.  Don’t meekly accept the party candidate.  That’s how we end up with neocon enablers in sheep’s clothing.  The party establishment will moan and give dire warnings of disaster if progressives are given the nod to run for office.  They MSM pundits will jabber on about disarray in the Democratic party and how it spells doom for Democrats and fortune for Republicans.

But the truth of the matter is, progressives have the best ideas and agendas right now.  And the greatest gains to be made will be made by putting actual progressives into the general elections.  There is a majority of voters that support the progressive movement and causes.  Congress has such low approval ratings right now because they have largely continued to rubber stamp the neocons.

Fight for control in the primaries.  Reject party-designated candidates like Tsongas in the primaries.

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By Stephen Smoliar, October 19, 2007 at 8:18 am Link to this comment

ctbrandon (#108231), if your question is more than a rhetorical gesture, then the best place to look for an answer is probably in Lewis Lapham’s study into the nature of the American Ruling Class.  As I believe I have suggested in other comments, that nature seems to be fueling a “War Against the Poor.”  While past wars have been conducted over territory or resources (such as oil) associated with territory, this war is being conducted by the American Ruling Class with the objective of enslaving those not privileged to rule.

In some ways this is similar to Hayek’s warning about a return to serfdom but from a point of view that Hayek could not have envisaged.

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By ctbrandon, October 19, 2007 at 7:23 am Link to this comment

driving bear, you are spot on.

the reason for this is because they arent really against anything. both the right and the left are on the same team now. they give us public debates for our own amusement, but nothing ever changes. and for some reason, those candidates that do truly represent our interests are labeled as “bottom tier” and buried by the media. Why is this?


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By driving bear, October 18, 2007 at 9:39 pm Link to this comment

In 2006 the democrats ran as the Anti-war party and so far have caved to Bush every time. In 2008 I don’t think the democrats will be able to sell themselves as the antiwar party. Also in recent polls bush’s numbers are up slightly and congress’s is still falling. One poll put the current democratic congress at just 11% approval , the lowest ever.
So if I had to give odds on the 08 election i would say the the odds are 6/5 and pick um

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