WASHINGTON -- Former House speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia warned fellow Republicans yesterday not to ignore the implications of the party's narrow victory in Tuesday's special election in Ohio, saying the public mood heading into next year's midterm elections appears to help Democrats and hurt Republicans.
''It should serve as a wake-up call to Republicans, and I certainly take it very seriously, in analyzing how the public mood evidences itself," he said. ''Who is willing to show up and vote is different than who answers a public opinion poll. Clearly, there's a pretty strong signal for Republicans thinking about 2006 that they need to do some very serious planning and not just assume that everything is going to be automatically OK."
Gingrich's reaction came after Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran and vocal critic of President Bush's Iraq policy, came within 4,000 votes of upsetting Republican Jean Schmidt in the solidly GOP Second Congressional District in southwest Ohio.
Schmidt and Hackett competed to fill a vacancy created when Representative Rob Portman, a Republican, resigned to become US trade representative. Schmidt won a contentious Republican primary and was heavily favored in a district that has been in GOP hands for nearly four decades. In November, Bush won the district with 64 percent of the vote.
Republican apathy, dissatisfaction with Bush and congressional Republicans, a GOP scandal in Ohio, and Hackett's energetic anti-Iraq campaign may have kept the race closer than expected, strategists in both parties said.
Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledged that the outcome fell far short of the party's desire to defeat Hackett in retaliation for attacking Bush. ''But it was a victory nonetheless."
GOP officials in Washington said the race carried no significant implications for the 2006 elections. They noted that special elections are often poor predictors of election trends.
Jason Mauk, political director for the Ohio Republican Party, said, ''To the extent that voters in that district were sending a message to the Republican Party at the state or national level, we have heard that message, and we will continue to listen to their concerns."
Mauk said the economy, national security, and a scandal that has touched Governor Bob Taft and other Ohio Republicans may have contributed to the unexpectedly narrow outcome.
Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin said the GOP should be nervous about next year's elections, given the gap between Bush's support last November and Schmidt's on Tuesday. ''We got a lot of warnings in '93 and '94 that voters were unhappy and dying to send a message," he said, recalling when Democrats lost control of the House and Senate in 1994.
Gingrich, architect of the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress, cited evidence that voter unrest is fueling Democratic hopes.
''There is more energy today on the anti-Iraq, anti-gas price, anti-changing Social Security, and I think anti-Washington [side]," he said. ''I think the combination of those four are all redounding to weaken Republicans and help Democrats. . . . I don't think this is time to panic, but I think it's time to think. If we don't think now, then next September, people will panic when it's too late."