Tuesday’s Massachusetts special election a test case for GOP in 2008

Congressional Republicans have been contributing thousands of dollars to Massachusetts special-election candidate Jim Ogonowski in the run-up to Tuesday’s contest, and the candidate should reward their investment with, at the very least, a test case of how to run in an unfriendly environment.

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As Republicans approach a second straight election fraught with difficulties, including growing retirements, money problems and generic polling that shows voters prefer the Democratic label, Ogonowski’s campaign has blazed a new trail en route to what could be a close contest with Democrat Niki Tsongas.

Voters will head to the polls in the Democratic-leaning district formerly held by Rep. Marty Meehan (D) on Tuesday, and as with other special elections, the outcome is anyone’s guess.

A pair of close special elections in GOP-leaning districts in Ohio and California last cycle were seen as harbingers of things to come for Democrats in 2006, and another in Georgia this year was seen as a repudiation of the GOP establishment candidate.

Ogonowski has run away from his party in some ways and has actually tried to tie his Democratic opponent to the Bush administration’s policies on issues including immigration and the Iraq war.

Ogonowski’s campaign launched a radio ad Monday focusing on Tsongas’s support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Ogonowski’s campaign has dubbed that policy “Bush amnesty,” a not-so-subtle throwback to the pervasive 2006 Democratic strategy of connecting Republicans to Bush.

Michael Goldman, a Massachusetts Democratic consultant and professor at Tufts University, said that an Ogonowski win would be a valuable resource for Republicans.

“If they were to pull this off, they would have a blueprint for running against every single Democrat in the country,” Goldman said. “Basically, on Bush, you say, ‘I think he hasn’t done a good job.’ On the war you say, ‘Golly gee, I’m not sure what I would do, but we all know Bush hasn’t done a good job.’ And then you say, ‘But my opponent is basically a wholly owned subsidiary of the terrible Congress.’ ”
The Ogonowski campaign’s strategy with regard to Iraq has been nuanced.

Similar to Democratic presidential candidate and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Ogonowski has sought separation by advocating a complete withdrawal from Iraq and has differentiated himself from Tsongas by pointing out that she would leave residual troops. Both have criticized the war.

Tsongas’s campaign notes that that Ogonowski’s position includes achieving victory in Iraq first, the cornerstone of Bush’s policy, and that generals have said a continuing force will be necessary in the coming years.

Ogonowski spokeswoman Alicia Preston said Ogonowski is running a different kind of campaign.

“I think his campaign really got back to the core principles of what an elected official is supposed to be — a representative of the people,” Preston said. “With that philosophy in mind, he’s been short on big-stage events with Washington politicians and spent of lot of time meeting with the people.”

At every turn, Ogonowski has reminded voters that he is a different kind of candidate, a non-politician who won’t toe the Republican Party line.

Last month, he sharply criticized House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) when Democrats jumped on Boehner for commenting that the price paid in Iraq would be a small one if it leads to stability in the region.

Boehner’s office insisted the congressman was referring to the monetary cost, but Ogonowski, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said Boehner owed servicemen and -women an apology.

On Thursday, Boehner became the latest House Republican to contribute to Ogonowski’s campaign, joining Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Christopher Shays (Conn.), Steven LaTourette (Ohio), Ray LaHood (Ill.) and Judy Biggert (Ill.), as well as GOP Sen. John Sununu (N.H.) and Ann Romney, the wife of presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R). The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has also contributed $5,000.

“It’s been pretty clear that Mr. Ogonowski has been trying to distance himself from his own party leaders and party politics,” said Tsongas spokeswoman Katie Elbert. “[Immigration] is just another way for him to try to confuse the voters.”

The party support pales to Tsongas’s — she has raised money with former President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and holds a sizeable cash advantage — but it has also allowed Democrats to call Ogonowski’s independence from the GOP into question.

Preston said the support is symptomatic of the message Ogonowski is sending.

“He is a Republican. He believes in the philosophy of small government, a secure nation and low taxes,” Preston said. “Those who support him believe he will go to Washington and represent them with those things in mind.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Carrie James called Ogonowski “Washington Republicans’ ideal candidate” and said he is wrong on the Iraq war.

Ogonowski’s campaign has harped on the amount of support from Washington that Tsongas has received Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) have also assisted the Tsongas effort in recent days.

A pair of SurveyUSA polls on the race, one conducted right after last month’s primary and another last week, have shown Tsongas ahead by 10 and nine points, respectively.