The "breaking news" e-mail alert was all too business as usual: "GOP retains congressional seat in Ohio in special election." And it was accurate, as far as it went. Republican Jean Schmidt defeated Democrat Paul Hackett Tuesday in a special election to replace Rob Portman, the Ohio congressman who gave up his seat to become George W. Bush's trade representative.
But Schmidt won quite narrowly -- she beat Hackett by a margin of 52-48 percent in a district in which Republicans badly outnumber Democrats and that Portman carried by more than 40 percentage points the last time around. So yes, the GOP retains the seat, but Republicans outside Schmidt's victory party probably aren't doing much celebrating this morning.
As elections analyst Charlie Cook wrote before the voting started, anything less than a huge Schmidt win should leave Republicans worried that the tide is turning against them in Ohio -- maybe because voters there are waking up to the realities of the Bush presidency, or maybe because they're weary of the "Coingate" scandal that has engulfed the GOP there. "If Schmidt's victory margin is in double digits, this tells us that there is not much of an anti-GOP wind in Ohio right now," Cook wrote. "If the margin is, say, six to nine points for Schmidt, then there is a wind, but certainly no hurricane. A Schmidt win of less than five points should be a very serious warning sign for Ohio Republicans that something is very, very wrong, while a Hackett victory would be a devastating blow to the Ohio GOP."
Hackett didn't win, but he drew within that five-point danger zone Cook identified. That doesn't get him a seat in Congress, but it gets him -- and Ohio's Democrats -- something that may be more important: hope for the future.