A drumbeat of corruption, deficits and war dead has begun to haunt Republican candidates as they hit the campaign trail. The macabre cadence is playing more widely than just federal races: Since November, it has become the background music in a series of state special elections.
Democrats are winning, often overwhelmingly, in districts and states that have backed Republicans in recent elections. The results show that state-level progressive candidates are better poised than at any time in the past 14 years to benefit from a defection of moderate conservatives and a slight left turn in the electorate.
In central Texas, nurse and former school board member Donna Howard beat Ben Bentzin in a Feb. 14 special state House race in suburban Travis County, outside Austin. Howard’s win signaled that Democrats can stand tough even in Republican-tilted districts imposed by “the DeLay-mander,” a revamping of federal districts now under scrutiny by the Supreme Court.
“People were receptive to the idea that someone was willing to talk about going into the legislature and actually making hard decisions, rather than following in lockstep with the failed leadership,” Howard told the Austin American-Statesman. Like other Democratic triumphs of late, her 58 to 42 percent victory came in a district that broke for the GOP in ‘04.
The same day in Kentucky, in a race that drew media attention and doorknockers from three states, Perry Clark, a veteran and Boy Scout volunteer, took the 37th state Senate seat. He won 54 to 46 percent in a district that snakes inland from the Ohio River on the southwest side of Louisville. It too was carried by the GOP in 2004.
Labor households were galvanized by recent Republican efforts to undermine Kentucky unions through a “right-to-work” law. In addition, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher is under investigation for filling state jobs with cronies in violation of rules on merit-based hiring. Both dynamics boosted Clark.
Next door in Virginia, Mark Herring took a state Senate seat in the D.C. suburbs that Democrats hadn’t even contested in 2002. The landslide 62 to 38 percent win on Jan. 31 sent shockwaves through the GOP, already reeling from a blow just three weeks earlier. In Jerry Fallwell’s stomping ground of Lynchburg, Shannon Valentine rode to a 58 to 42 win for a seat that also hadn’t drawn a Democratic challenger last time around.
Missouri, a battleground that rates as the best bellwether of presidential elections, has seen Democratic victories in conservative districts as well. In February, down in Ashcroft Country, the state’s southwest corner, Charles Dake claimed a state House seat, 56 to 44 percent, that his party hadn’t even sought in 2004.
Jane Bogetto got the ball rolling Nov. 8, beating the widow of the previous seat-holder in a district west of St. Louis. Bogetto, an adoptive mother of three who spotlighted her family in all her campaign mailings, faced smears trying to link her to late-term abortion and same-sex marriage. She prevailed 58 to 42 percent in a district the GOP had held for a generation.
“The hate stuff fired up the people working in my campaign, and it backfired. It just really turned off a lot of moderate Republicans,” Bogetto told the Webster-Kirkwood Times.
“I never thought I’d see a Democrat elected to the legislature,” local political analyst John Pohlmann told the Times. “A lot of suburbs all over the country are starting to trend to the Democrats, mainly because of women voters.”
That trend held in Minnesota. On Nov. 22, Terri Bonoff won a race for the 43rd state Senate seat in the collar communities west of Minneapolis. Once again, her 54 to 46 percent win was a reversal from the previous result, in 2002, favoring the GOP. Then, on Dec. 27, Tarryl Clark took a Senate seat in working-class St. Cloud, another turnaround from the ‘02 outcome. In both races, a novel coalition of environmental, housing, low-income, pro-choice and gay-rights activists used their lists and shoe leather to get out local voters. Their win not only put a hitch in right-wing plans to ram an anti-same-sex-marriage amendment through the legislature and onto the ‘06 ballot; it also produced a blueprint for an even better collaborative program this fall, when a U.S. Senate seat, U.S. House seats, the governor’s mansion and the state House are all up for grabs.
Finally, over the past three months in New Hampshire, where GOP activists still face charges for jamming opponents’ phones during the ‘02 campaign, candidates John Robinson, Penn Brown and Jim Aguiar won special elections for state House seats in districts that were swept by the GOP just a year earlier.
Between general elections in 1992 and 1994, then-Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour ballyhooed Republican wins in disparate states during the period and proclaimed a grassroots mandate against the Clinton administration. The trend foreshadowed huge GOP gains in November ‘94. Now this pattern is playing out again – for the other side.