Ten years ago, then-Representative Martin Meehan (D-MA) resigned from the House to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Meehan’s Congressional seat had not been held by a non-Democrat since the early-1970s, and the prospects of the Republican Party capturing the seat in a special election seemed rather remote.
However, Republicans did not shrug their shoulders in resignation, conceding the race even before it began. Instead, the GOP rallied behind Jim Ogonowski, an anti-immigration zealot, in an attempt to pull off a blue-state upset over Democratic opponent Niki Tsongas, the widow of former Bay State Senator Paul Tsongas (who himself held Meehan’s Congressional seat in the mid-1970s). Ogonowski’s hate-mongering, terrorism-exploiting efforts nearly paid off, as E. J. Dionne noted in an October 2007 column:
[Tsongas’s] 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 [President George W.] 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’s 5th 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 of that, 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…
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 a regular guy facing a political pro.
If Republicans are willing to pursue victory in the face of long odds, why don’t Democrats do the same? There’s nothing wrong with angling for an upset victory: that is, in essence, what Ogonowski’s fellow Bay State Republican Scott Brown did in 2010…and what Donald Trump did in 2016. The idea that Democrats should now regard the Sixth Congressional District race in Georgia or the at-large Congressional District race in Montana as potentially lost causes is without merit.
Of course, if Democrats decide to make a serious effort to reclaim red-state territory, the question of to what extent ideological flexibility should be allowed in Democratic candidates must be resolved. The controversy over Vermont Senator (and yes, non-Democrat) Bernie Sanders’s support for an anti-choice Democratic mayoral candidate in Omaha, Nebraska is indicative of the conflicts that could come.
There is a legitimate concern that choosing to downplay a commitment to progressive principles in the name of winning elections will inevitably result in the creation of more Joe Liebermans; Sanders should be careful not to come across as being blithely dismissive of these concerns. Having said that, former House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill’s famous observation that “all politics is local” is not necessarily a false one, and the return to a fifty-state strategy will inevitably result in some degree of ideological flexibility among Democratic House and Senate hopefuls.
If Democrats recapture the House and/or Senate in 2018 with a combination of progressive and less-than-progressive candidates, it will be interesting to see if the less-than-progressive Democrats will be responsive to, or scornful of, progressive pressure in 2019 and 2020. A Democratic majority that is responsive to such pressure, even if every individual constituting that majority is not a committed progressive, could drive Donald Trump crazy–a very short drive, to be sure.