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GOP Wins Ohio Seat: Does it Signal a Comback?

Republican Bob Latta's surprisingly strong victory in an Ohio special election last night has set off a spin war over what it means for the 2008 election.

The National Republican Congressional Committee released a memo in the immediate aftermath of the vote, insisting that Latta's win in the 5th District, coupled with another special election victory in Virginia's 1st, are evidence that the demise of the Republican party in 2008 are greatly exaggerated.

"The results of the special elections in Ohio and Virginia are further confirmation of a shifting political environment, an electorate desperate for change in Washington, and a wide-open congressional playing field," the memo reads. "And as we've previously stated, the results of the special elections of 2007 are proof that that Democrats won't get two 2006s in a row."

Democrats immediately pushed back, noting that the NRCC had been forced to spend more than 10 percent of their cash on hand in a district that gave President Bush 61 percent of the vote in 2004.

Party operatives also took the spending by Freedom's Watch -- a conservative-leaning independent group -- in the district as a chance to highlight for their members the dangers posed by 527s in 2008.

In a memo distributed to the Democratic House Caucus today, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen warned: "As we saw again in OH-05, our main competition is likely to be Republican 527s, not the NRCC. This cycle Republican 527s have pledged more than a quarter billion dollars toward beating Democrats."

He added: "There was no Democratic 527 activity in the OH-05 and VA-01 Special Elections and currently no 527 organization is dedicated to the election of House Democrats. Clearly, House Democrats must be prepared to defend ourselves from outside conservative groups' attacks and learn from these special elections as we prepare for 2008."

In past cycles 527s dedicated to electing Democrats to the House have collapsed after failing to raise enough funds to have a serious impact. One wonders whether Van Hollen's statement that no House-focused Democratic 527 currently exists will function as a call to arms for donors looking to impact things next fall.

Put all the spin aside and what emerges is some good news for both sides.

Republicans desperately needed to hold Ohio's 5th district. A loss would have had HUGE symbolic implications; Ohio is Minority Leader John Boehner home state, and the district's demographics clearly favored the GOP.

So, while the NRCC spent far more money they probably should have -- $443,000 as of today -- it was probably worth it. The truth is that a loss would have so badly demoralized their conference that it would have made raising money heading in to the 2008 election a near-impossibility. The expenditure of so much of its campaign war chest was, for the NRCC, a necessary evil. Does it handicap them in the short run, especially if the special election in Illinois' 14th District becomes competitive? Yes. Did the committee have any choice but to do what they did? No.

For Democrats, they did their level best to keep expectations under control -- despite the best efforts by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) to raise them. The reality is that although Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) and Gov. Ted Strickland (D) carried the district in 2006, this was never a particularly friendly seat for Democrats. The "Democratic performance" in the district -- based on a formula put together by the geniuses at the National Committee for an Effective Congress (a Democratic non-profit) -- is 43 percent. NCEC director Mark Gersh noted that Democrats won no seats in 2006 with a performance number under 45 percent, other than those handful (Pennsylvania's 10th District, Texas' 22nd District) that were touched by scandal.

In the end, both sides got what they wanted. Republicans scored a win they desperately needed while Democrats successfully forced the NRCC to spend down their extremely limited campaign war chest.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 13, 2007; 12:13 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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