August has been a month of grim news from Iraq. More than two dozen Americans have been killed there. A single Marine battalion based in Ohio lost 14 members in two days.
Republicans also received some sobering political news in Ohio. On August 2, Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran running as a critic of President Bush's war policy, very nearly won an upset victory in a heavily Republican congressional district.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., called the Ohio special election a "wake-up call" for Republicans. Gingrich told The Washington Post: "There is more energy today on the anti-Iraq, anti-gas-price, anti-changing-Social Security, and, I think, anti-Washington [side]. I think the combination of those four are all redounding to weaken Republicans and help Democrats."
Washington today is a Republican town. The GOP controls everything—just as Democrats did in 1993. The anti-Washington mood that year culminated in an earthquake in the 1994 midterm election. Democrats lost control of Congress, resulting in Gingrich's coming to power. And now Gingrich seems to think that Republicans face a similar danger in 2006.
An anti-war Democrat wasn't supposed to have a prayer in a district that gave Bush 64 percent of its vote last year. But Hackett showed a lot of fight. He conceded defeat, but not failure. "This [campaign] was a success," he declared. "We should all be proud, so let's rock on!"
Hackett's feistiness had attracted the attention of liberal bloggers, who used his campaign to stage a demonstration of "Net-roots activism." Bob Brigham and his partner, Tim Tagaris, who run swingstateproject.com, organized a "blog-swarm" of more than 100 liberal and Democratic blogs to raise money and turn out volunteers on Hackett's behalf for the Ohio race.
"We raised around $550,000 from the Net-roots," Brigham said, "which means we outspent the National Republican Congressional Committee, and we're three times as relevant as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in terms of cold, hard cash."
On the final day of the campaign, Brigham said, "I put out a request saying we needed $30,000 for the get-out-the-vote program. And within six hours, we raised $60,000. Money was coming in at more than $100 a minute."
In Brigham's view, the Ohio campaign proved that "the lone gunslingers of the blogosphere could work as a posse, and that's what let us raise an army."
Turnout tends to be very low for midsummer special elections. But in the August 2 Ohio race, GOP voters were more than five times as likely as Democratic voters to stay home. Republican turnout problems were particularly pronounced in the poorer, more-rural areas of the district that had helped deliver Ohio to Bush last year.
Why did so many Republicans sit out the Ohio contest instead of coming out to defend their party's president, the man the Democratic candidate called an "SOB" and, because he had not served in the Vietnam War, a "chicken hawk." One clue to the GOP absenteeism comes from an Associated Press/Ipsos poll. Only 48 percent of Americans now consider Bush honest; 50 percent do not. That's a severe blow to a leader whose political appeal has always been based on public perception of his character.
A recent Gallup Poll mirrors the AP/Ipsos result. By 50 percent to 48 percent, more Americans now say they have an unfavorable personal opinion of Bush.
Could a single special election in one district be a sign of trouble ahead for Republicans? The Cincinnati Enquirer, which endorsed the Republican candidate in the Ohio special election, offered this editorial assessment: "If the war's conduct resonates so strongly in the 2nd District ... its echo is likely to be even louder in the rest of the country next year if our involvement in Iraq is unabated."
Election analyst Rhodes Cook, editor of The Rhodes Cook Letter, cautions, however, "We're in an era now ... that is basically a safe-incumbent era. There are very few [House] seats that are really in play, barring a national trauma taking place."
Could Iraq become that national trauma?
In a CBS News poll this month, 59 percent of Americans said that the war in Iraq is not worth the loss of American lives and other costs. In last week's Newsweek poll, 61 percent of Americans disapproved of Bush's handling of Iraq. Only 34 percent approved.
The American public is demoralized not just by the losses. It also worries that not enough is being accomplished to make the sacrifice worthwhile. By 50 percent to 40 percent in the Newsweek poll, the public said that the United States is losing ground in its efforts to establish stability and democracy in Iraq. Even more ominous for Bush is that 64 percent of Americans say they think the war in Iraq has made the United States less safe.
"Elections are accountability moments, and we don't have too many of them going on right now," Cook said. "Whenever they happen, they get the attention of politicians and journalists."
The special election in Ohio certainly grabbed attention. Its outcome suggests that the poll numbers we're now seeing could have real political consequences for the GOP.