Jim Ogonowski is on a coffee shop tour of Massachusetts, which might explain his caffeinated exuberance. He rattles off a list of towns he has visited recently and says, “Everywhere I go, people are tired of the status quo in Washington, D.C.” In a Boston accent, he complains about “rekkid deficits” and gas prices reaching “foah dollas a gallon.” The Dracut farmer, 28-year Air Force veteran, and Republican Senate candidate is absolutely convinced he can unseat four-term Sen. John Kerry this November.
It would be quite an upset. Kerry has banked $9.9 million in campaign funds and hasn’t faced a serious challenge in twelve years. Massachusetts does not have a single Republican congressman or statewide officeholder. The commonwealth hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Edward Brooke won his last term in 1972. This year, there is likely to be a big Democratic vote for president regardless of whether the nominee is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Ogonowski isn’t even assured the GOP senatorial nomination, as he must first face Jeff Beatty in a September primary.
Ogonowski is undeterred. He ran a more competitive than expected race to fill a vacant House seat for Massachusetts’ Fifth Congressional District. Democrat Niki Tsongas ended up beating Ogonowski by just 52 percent to 46 percent, despite Paul Tsongas’s family name, a sizable Democratic registration advantage, the high-profile support of many elected officials, and outspending the Republican nearly 7-to-1. Ogonowski believes he can be on the other end of a close election this time around.
Kerry is not as popular as the Bay State’s senior senator, Ted Kennedy. Every Republican who has ever run against Kerry has broken 40 percent of the vote, while only two — George Cabot Lodge in 1962 and Mitt Romney in 1994 — have ever done so against Kennedy. When the GOP punted on the 2002 race against Kerry, a Libertarian still managed to win 19 percent. It’s still a long shot, but exactly the kind of contest the Republicans need to make competitive to avoid a debacle in next year’s Senate races.
“He’s never in the state,” Ogonowski says of Kerry, echoing a common complaint. “You especially hear that out in western Massachusetts. Whatever my disagreements with Ted Kennedy, people out here talk about him with a different tone.” Absence does not always make the heart grow fonder. A Suffolk University poll last year found that 56 percent of Massachusetts voters wanted a new senator while only 37 percent thought Kerry should run again. As Republican consultant Charles Manning told Roll Call, “He’s an aloof patrician who never really has connected with the people here.”
Kerry’s critics also argue that he has little to show for nearly 24 years in the Senate. In addition to neglecting the commonwealth, he has been the primary sponsor of only nine bills that have actually been signed into law (the last one in 1999). Even some liberals dislike Kerry. Ed Reilly is challenging him in the Democratic primary, arguing that the incumbent is too timid about ending the Iraq war, promoting same-sex marriage, and impeaching President Bush.
For his part, Ogonowski plans to run to Kerry’s right on taxes, government spending, earmark reform, and illegal immigration while taking a populist line on energy independence. He stresses bipartisanship — “It doesn’t matter whether something is a Republican idea or a Democrat idea” — in a state where a plurality of the registered voters are independents. He also emphasizes his biography as a military man whose pilot brother was murdered by the 9/11 hijackers. It’s a narrative similar to the one that gave Congresswoman Tsongas a scare in last year’s special election.
Talk of bipartisanship notwithstanding, won’t Ogonowski be hurt by the Republican label? In his last race, it was an open seat, there were no Democratic coattails for his opponent to grab onto, and still he came up short. A presidential election year is likely to prove an even more challenging environment for a Republican. Bill Clinton helped Kerry survive a strong challenge by Bill Weld in 1996.
Ogonowski points to a Survey USA poll showing John McCain tied with likely Democratic nominee Barack Obama, arguing that he might be able to count on McCain’s coattails this time around. Ronald Reagan carried Massachusetts twice in the 1980s. Weld, Paul Cellucci, Mitt Romney, and former state Treasurer Joe Malone all won statewide between 1990 and 2002. The last Republicans to represent Massachusetts in Congress, Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen, managed to overcome a Clinton landslide in 1992.
That’s enough to keep Ogonowski going as a Republican candidate in the country’s bluest state. That and a few more cups of coffee.
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