Last week, the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, confirmed that an election will be held on October 16 to decide who will succeed the fifth district's Martin Meehan in the House of Representatives, from which he is due to retire shortly.
To outsiders, a good question might seem to be, why did Mr. Patrick bother? After all, Massachusetts is a state represented only by Democrats in Congress - five of whom ran unopposed in 2006. Wouldn't it be easier if the Democrats just decided between frontrunners Niki Tsongas, wife of the late Senator Tsongas, and state representative Barry Finegold, and sent their preferred option to the Capitol, post haste?
Well, it turns out the Bay State is not quite as liberal as we assume, and a Democratic victory isn't certain.
Meet Jim Ogonowski. He's either the gutsiest man in Massachusetts or the most foolish, depending on your perspective. Mr. Ogonowski is the presumptive Republican nominee for Mr. Meehan's seat — and, it turns out, something more than a certain loser.
While Republicans have traditionally had a tough time of it in the home state of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis, Mr. Ogonowski is not just your average Republican. For starters, he's got a compelling story that makes him more Rudy Giuliani than Bill Frist: Mr. Ogonowski is an Air Force lieutenant colonel whose brother just happened to be the pilot of the American Airlines plane that hijackers flew into the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Morbid though that is, it gives him a certain celebrity status, an element of interest that just may surpass that of Paul Tsongas's widow — and a reason for more liberal Massachusetts voters to take a closer-than-usual look at him.
Mr. Ogonowski, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate — and who looks and sounds like a populist Republican — has started his campaign off on a note that should resonate with voters. Like any candidate with a clue about messaging, Mr. Ogonowski says he is running in order to make government work and put an end to partisan bickering, for the benefit of the people. But unlike many Republicans running in New England, when he says it, it actually sounds credible.
Mr. Ogonowski's accent proves that he is no blue-blood, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, like Mitt Romney or Ted Kennedy. His name hints at his Eastern European roots. And he is quick to underline that he comes from a family of farmers and servicemen, not wealthy WASPs living off of inherited wealth — yet supposedly fighting to make life better for the common man.
When he complains that our tax system is unfair to working families, and that many people have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet — only to see much of their income stripped away by the tax man — it's clear that he's speaking from experience. Mr. Ogonowski is quick to remind voters that his father worked two jobs (one as a farmer) in order to send his children to college, and that he, himself, attended the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, not Harvard or Amherst.
In a district where two of the major towns have poverty rates above 10% (one of which is considerably poorer than Boston), Mr. Ogonowski's populist bashing of the tax system should appeal to independents and moderates. It may even appeal to Democrats — it at least won't turn them off immediately — and that's the key for any Republican who wants to win in this district.
Massachusetts's fifth has not elected a Republican Congressman since back in the Nixon days. That's the bad news with which Mr. Ogonowski will have to contend. But if congressional-election history is against him, the history of some recent statewide races offers him a sliver of hope.
Despite Massachusetts's liberal reputation, it has elected plenty of Republicans in statewide races — and not just back in the 19th century, either. Since 1991, all of Massachusetts's governors have been Republicans.
And, in the fifth district, Republicans have not had a terrible run of things, even recently. Back in 2002, in the fifth district's Essex, Middlesex, and Worcester counties, the Republican Romney-Healey ticket garnered some 100,000 more votes than the Democratic O'Brien-Gabrieli ticket. In 2004, in Worcester and Essex Counties, the Bush-Cheney ticket, astonishingly, took more than 40% of the vote (and that in a year in which home state hero John Kerry was the Democratic nominee). In 2006, an incredibly anti-Republican year, Republican Kerry Healey —a decidedly weak candidate, with one of the worst-run campaigns in the country — won in just over one third of the towns in the fifth district.
And this recent history isn't the only thing providing Mr. Ogonowski with a bit of hope. He also convinced both of his anticipated primary opponents to stand down — giving him a clean shot at his Democratic opponent. The Democrats, meanwhile, are looking at a potentially messy primary — something that could prove to be to Mr. Ogonowski's advantage.
For outsiders, it's tough to imagine a Republican entering the House of Representatives, representing Massachusetts. But, as John F. Kennedy once said, "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." Jim Ogonowski is counting on it.