Paul Hackett is out for one last day of pressing the flesh.
It’s August 2, Election Day, and the lanky, blond, 43-year-old Marine has taken up position outside the polling place in Loveland, a burg on the outskirts of Cincinnati, flashing his toothy smile for the early risers. Hackett is dressed smartly in a blue shirt and striped pastel tie. His khaki pants hang loosely from his wiry, 180-pound frame.
“That’s low politics, punk!” a heavy-set man sneers as he marches toward the poll.
Hackett wheels around. “Pardon me?”
“You know, that radio ad that says, ‘You don’t know Schmidt.’” He’s talking about one of Hackett’s attack ads against Republican Jean Schmidt. The man spews a stream of epithets, and Hackett lets out a crybaby whimper: “Waaaaaaa!”
“What’s that, punk?” the big man growls.
A TV crew is setting up nearby, but Hackett doesn’t seem to care. “What’s your fuckin’ problem?” the candidate snaps. “You got something to say to me? Bring it on!” Hackett, all 6 feet 2 inches of him, is nose to nose with the heckler. “Problem?” he taunts. The man turns around and storms away.
“These guys in the Republican Party adopted this tough-guy language,” Hackett tells me, still steamed, an hour later. “They’re bullies. They’re offended when somebody takes a swing back at them.”
From the beginning of his quixotic campaign in a special election for U.S. Congress this summer, Paul Hackett relished taking swings. His rhetoric was scorched-earth: “I don’t like the sonofabitch that lives in the White House,” he told USA Today, “but I’d put my life on the line for him.” He declared in a debate that the biggest threat to America is “the man living in the White House,” and he slammed President Bush and Vice President Cheney as “chicken hawks.” He described Bush’s infamous taunt to Iraqi resistance fighters—“Bring ’em on”—as “the most incredibly stupid comment I’ve ever heard a president of the United States make. He cheered on the enemy.” The flame-throwing rhetoric belies an analytical attorney with an (often) understated persona; apologetic, however, Hackett is not.
“I said it, I meant it, I stand by it,” he said when I asked if he regretted any of his comments. “Bush is a chicken hawk, okay? Tough shit.” As for the SOB barb, Bush “talks the tough talk. He should appreciate that.”
A major in the Marine Corps Reserve fresh from a tour in Iraq, Hackett proved to be that rarest of modern political animals, a fighting Democrat. Storming through a deep-red district with freshly minted veterans from his Marine unit, smacking down the religious right, ripping into President Bush, he transformed what was supposed to be a sleepy exercise to fill a safe GOP seat into a rowdy brawl that blindsided the national Republican and Democratic
establishments. While he lost the election in a 52-to-48 percent squeaker, he scored decisive wins in the white, lower-income, high-unemployment rural areas that Democrats long ago abandoned—and took one-third more votes in the district than John Kerry had pulled in just eight months earlier. His near upset would turn the state that handed George W. Bush his 2004 victory into a much-discussed bellwether for 2006 and 2008. Could Ohio be signaling a shift in the political winds, at last?
The conservative Cincinnati Enquirer declared Hackett’s showing “nothing short of astounding.” U.S. Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) told the Columbus Dispatch, “The political situation for Republicans both in Washington and especially Ohio is just dreadful. I’ve never seen it so dire.” To be sure, Hackett was helped by the fact that Ohio’s Republicans have been in the midst of a full-scale meltdown; earlier this year the governor was forced to apologize for taking illegal gifts, and the state’s senior senator, Mike DeWine—whom Hackett plans to challenge next year—has some of the lowest approval ratings of any U.S. senator.
But Hackett also has national GOP leaders watching their backs. After the election, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the Washington Post that Hackett’s performance “should serve as a wake-up call to Republicans, and I certainly take it very seriously in analyzing how the public mood evidences itself. 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 okay.” Or, as Chris Baker, a blogger who focuses on Ohio’s 2nd District, told me during the campaign’s final days, “The Republicans have invested $500,000 in the reddest seat in America. This is their house. If you knock one out here, it’s a blow to the center of their operation.”
THE 2ND DISTRICT is the scarlet stripe in a red state: Since 1951, only one Democrat has represented this heavily gerrymandered slice of southern Ohio. In 2004, Rob Portman—the Republican whose seat came open for this summer’s special election when he was appointed U.S. trade representative—won the district with 72 percent of the vote, while George W. Bush took 64 percent. The Almanac of American Politics notes that Cincinnati is “the most Republican major metropolitan area in the nation over the longest time span.” The district hugs the Kentucky border and has a strong Bible Belt strain. Wherever you go, light poles and trees are adorned with yellow bows. “This is the kind of place where they want the Ten Commandments displayed in schools and public places,” notes Michael Margolis, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. “These are very conservative people. But clearly, in this election, there was something else that was on their minds.”
Travel the 2nd’s 100 miles and seven counties, and you’ll cover almost the full range of America’s economic divide. At the district’s western end is the Cincinnati suburb of Indian Hill, where Paul and Suzi Hackett live with their three children in a beautifully restored 200-year-old stone house on the banks of the Little Miami River. One of the wealthiest communities in Ohio, Indian Hill was the second-highest contributor in the country to President Bush’s 2004 election campaign (only Manhattan’s Upper East Side raised more), providing more than $700,000 for the Bush war chest. From here, the district stretches through exurban Clermont and Warren counties, rolling on into farming and tobacco country and butting up against the hardscrabble communities of Ohio’s Appalachian foothills. It’s a place hit hard by declining farm incomes and manufacturing flight; fewer than 10 percent of its rural residents have bachelor’s degrees, more than 95 percent are white, and the median income hovers near $30,000. According to Bill Tummler, a United Auto Workers (UAW) rep in the area, there are 31,000 union members in the district, but many of them are “independents”—code for saying that organized labor is no longer a reliable vote for Democrats. At a General Electric plant in Evendale, Denny Rydyznski, a machinist clutching a lunch box, confirmed this point to me. “Republicans are wired into business more,” he said. “I don’t recall ever getting a job from Democrats.”
One morning toward the end of his campaign, Paul Hackett was headed to the GE plant to catch guys like Rydyznski at shift change. At the wheel of his Honda Civic hybrid, with his gold-rimmed Ray-Bans and the fuzzy dice dangling from the mirror, Hackett could have been a high school kid cooing over his dragster: “Lookatthis, lookatthis! We’re getting 50 mpg!” A few miles before the factory, he suddenly made a hard right into a parking lot. A gas-guzzling Pontiac belonging to one of his campaign aides pulled up alongside, and Hackett hopped in. “Better to be in an American car for this next stop,” he said sheepishly.
“Notice: National Defense Premises,” announced the signs as we pulled into the sprawling plant. GE Evendale makes jet engines for Boeings, as well as engines for military jets. Hackett knows the place well: His dad once worked there as an engineer, though the candidate never mentioned that connection as he shook hands with the rank and file. A small group of representatives from the UAW and the International Association of Machinists greeted him on the scorching hot pavement.
“I’m Paul Hackett, and I’m running for Congress,” he said, swinging into handshakes as if he were landing roundhouse punches. “’Preciate your support tomorrow.” A hint of his jarhead cut was still evident beneath his flock of small curls; flecks of gray clung to his temples. A button on his shirt said, “Proud to have served.” Hackett flashed a relaxed smile to an older woman who had just emerged from the plant and joked about the sweat seeping through his shirt. A man in a T-shirt and baseball cap gave him an obligatory nod and walked on past, until a union rep corralled him with the one-second bio: “He’s a Marine and he’s just back from Iraq.”
With that, Eddie McGowan stopped to take a second look. “He’s a military man?” he asked. “That’s big for me. Means he’s not afraid to fight for his country at home or abroad.”
Hackett joined the Marines in 1982, when he was a student at Case Western University, which was also where he met his wife, a psychologist by training. His father was an Army veteran who served during the Korean War and told his two sons that military
service was a noble calling. Hackett looked at it as “a way to serve,” and also “a way to travel, and to gain self-confidence and self-discipline.” In all, he’d served 16 years in the Marines, including three years of active duty, by the time he was honorably discharged in 1999.
Hackett was staunchly opposed to the invasion of Iraq: “We set a precedent after 227 years that we were going to invade a country that had not attacked us first,” he told me. Yet when the war began, he found it hard to sit on the sidelines. He recalled a biblical line his father often quoted: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” And so, in the summer of 2004, Hackett volunteered to return to the Marines for a new tour of duty. Within weeks he was a convoy commander in Ramadi; later he was assigned to head a civil affairs detachment in Fallujah, arguably the most dangerous place in Iraq. “Those are my Marines over there who are fighting and dying,” he would explain when journalists quizzed him about his antiwar, pro-Marine stance. “I feel a bond with them, and I feel I need to be there with them. And I set my politics aside when I put the uniform on to be with—you know, I really mean this—to be with my brothers and sisters in the Marine Corps. They are my second family that I have been with for many years.”
Hackett’s loyalty was reciprocated. In a parallel to John Kerry’s posse of silver-haired Vietnam vets, he was accompanied everywhere during the campaign by strapping, buzz-cut young Marines. One of them was Lance Cpl. Ryan Pettit, a 20-year-old from Virginia who served under Hackett in Ramadi. Earnest, stoic, and still sporting his dog tags, Pettit told me on the sidewalk outside campaign headquarters, “I came out because I know him personally. I know his character. And I think he would be good for the country.”
Hackett’s battles had inspired Pettit, who is majoring in government at George Mason University: “You’ll be covering my presidential race someday,” he told me matter-of-factly.
Any veteran who runs for office as a Democrat can expect his share of Swift Boating, and Hackett was no exception. On Election Day, Rush Limbaugh blasted the candidate as a “staff puke” who “goes to Iraq to pad the résumé.” A caller claiming to be a Navy lieutenant told Limbaugh that Hackett hadn’t been “in a combat position.” The Schmidt campaign also floated election-eve attacks on Hackett’s bona fides.
“That’s just bullshit,” counters Marine Corps Major William Reynolds, who is communications director for Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and also served with Hackett in Iraq. “Paul was under fire, mortared, and IED’d.” Reynolds notes that politically, he and Hackett “didn’t agree, but it was a real delight to have him over there. As a Marine, he was a trusted person on the ground. You knew when you were there you could count on him.”
For his part, Hackett simply says that he considers himself lucky. In the course of his seven months in Iraq, he survived some near misses, including wrestling an insurgent to the ground in Fallujah and a roadside bomb that exploded in front of his Humvee. “We had some outrageously close calls combined with outrageously good luck, where in any other circumstances on any other day, people would have died.”
As we wheeled through Cincinnati’s suburban sprawl en route to a rally, I asked Hackett if he’d ever killed anyone. His jaw tensed, and he fell uncharacteristically silent. “I don’t talk about that,” he said finally.
Why? A longer silence. “It’s just not something that—I don’t think anybody in the military talks about that with civilians, for sure. It’s just not a topic—it’s something that nobody understands, so I think it’s just a topic best left alone.”
HACKETT DIDN’T PLAN to make the war a top issue. After handily winning a five-way Democratic primary in June, he thought he’d focus on the economy and, in the wake of the Terri Schiavo case, getting government out of people’s private lives. “Talking about Iraq didn’t seem that relevant and interesting,” he recalls. “A million guys had done what I did.” But on the campaign trail, “it got out of control. Everyone wanted to talk about Iraq.” For Hackett, who relates almost everything he does to his experience in the Marines, military service was also a potent metaphor. “In the military we say you’re only as strong as your weakest link. So what does that say in this nation, where there are so many who are homeless, so many who are in poverty, and the poverty levels continue to increase at all levels throughout society?”
That talent for idiosyncratic synthesis—military ethic equals war on poverty—provided Hackett with a strange-bedfellows collection of campaign planks. He advocated for standard liberal issues by invoking red-state red meat, and vice versa. In a debate with Schmidt, he said, concerning gay marriage: “I don’t want the government in the bedroom any more than I want it in my gun safe or telling me how to worship.” And, on abortion: “If you don’t want government in your personal life when it comes to choice, you have to be consistent about that with guns.”
Hackett loves guns, and loves talking about them, especially to squeamish liberals such as the campaign staffers whom he delighted in taking out shooting on the weekend. He declares flatly that Dem- ocrats are “wrong on guns. I think they need to accept that.” During the campaign, he’d quietly reassure skeptics that he supported enforcing existing federal gun laws, but it was his enthusiasm for hot lead that won him converts.
“I always thought gun control was when you hit your target,” he chuckled to a guy in a T-shirt in front of the GE factory gate. Jim Smith, a machinist and union rep, was thrilled: “He’s like a rank-and-filer. And he’s not a clone of any party.”
ON THE MORNING before Election Day, Hackett pulled up to his campaign headquarters on the sleepy main drag of Batavia, a suburb about a half-hour east of downtown Cincinnati. He had come to rally the troops for the final get-out-the-vote push. As he bounded out of the car, he conceded that he didn’t know many of the volunteers there. It was easy to see why. The office resembled the late stages of a weeklong frat party. Unshaven college kids were tethered to laptops and cell phones. Aluminum trays of half-eaten baked ziti and boxes of muffins and chocolates lay strewn about. Figuring out who was who seemed hopeless.
“Hi Paul, I just got here from Ann Arbor to help,” said a 14-year-old named Gus, sticking out his hand. Other volunteers introduced themselves—from Indianapolis, Boston, California, and Washington, D.C. In the final week, Hackett had become a folk hero on blogs and websites, a liberal in the battle of his life against the forces of Republican darkness.
Hackett was not quite the outlaw that many of these folks imagined. The tough-talking vet was, after all, a wealthy personal-injury lawyer, the product of well-endowed Indian Hill High and an elite Eastern prep school. He trolled for votes in the rural areas in sockless loafers, a gold Rolex gleaming on his wrist. But the accoutrements of privilege didn’t seem to bother his grassroots supporters, who spilled out onto the sidewalks and into nearby pubs. (By contrast, the Schmidt for Congress satellite office directly across the street was nearly empty.)
Dan Johns, a burly Vietnam vet, heating contractor, and proud Republican, was among those who showed up to get out the vote for Hackett. With his bulging gut and thinning hair, he looked more than a little out of place among the chain-smoking campaign junkies and waifish college kids. He confessed to never having worked for a politician before—and certainly never for a Democrat. “To me, Saddam Hussein is no different than Hitler,” he said, taking a break in the shade of a tree as volunteers swarmed about.
Did he vote for Kerry? “God, no. I hated him. He’s too liberal. He was trying to appease the doves.” Bush, he added, “is a good president. He stands up for what he believes in.” Not unlike Hackett, he concluded. “I met him, I like him, and he’s a Marine. I go with my gut.”
Butch Davis, a 70-year-old lifelong Republican, pulled up at Hackett HQ in a 1943 Marine Corps jeep, complete with a mounted 30-caliber machine gun, sporting a “Veterans for Hackett” sign. “I’m a redneck from Brown County,” he declared proudly, extending his weathered hand. “Paul’s pro-choice,” he added. “I’m pro-life. He said educating the young fellas and gals is the answer to the problem, not outlawing abortion.”
Davis continued in a thick Southern drawl, “I used to think clinic bombers were doing the right thing. My preacher said I was too uptight.” He chuckled. Now, he said, “I think Paul’s approach is as good as mine.” The Bush administration, he continued, “trampled on our Bill of Rights and Constitution. They should be ashamed.”
Then there was Jack Haigwood, a salon-equipment manufacturer, Vietnam vet, and a Republican—until last year. “This president has not been kind to vets,” the former Navy Seabee noted, “though he’s created quite a few of them.” He was upset, too, “with how this administration walks all over the Constitution. This terrorism act takes a lot of civil liberties. And I fought for those.”
This, says blogger Chris Baker, is the thing about Hackett that most outsiders missed—including the party strategists who issued self-serving memos about Hackett’s strong showing, but never mentioned his positions. “Those national Democrats never saw Hackett talking to a Republican,” he says. “The voice he was using had the same effect as Ronald Reagan when he would quote FDR. When Reagan ran in Ohio, he wasn’t talking to Republicans—he was talking to Democrats. Hackett, when he says, ‘This is not Goldwater’s Republican Party, this is not your father’s Republican Party’—you sit in a roomful of Ohio farmers and you see all those heads nodding up and down. The national campaign staff was talking about targeting Democratic voters. But Hackett was talking to both sides.”
AT VETERANS MEMORIAL PARK in Union Township, 50 supporters of Jean Schmidt gathered beneath a full-size decommissioned Huey helicopter, mounted on a pedestal like a hunting trophy. It was two days before the special election, and Schmidt had put together a vets’ event to counter Hackett’s military appeal. Marine Corps Reserve Colonel Danny Bubp, a local Republican state representative, was sweating in his dress uniform and telling the crowd that as a military officer, “one thing you don’t do is disparage your commander in chief.”
Jean Schmidt stood nearby, a rhinestone flag emblazoned across her chest. Two large buttons bearing pictures of local soldiers—one killed in Iraq, the other missing—were pinned to her shirt. Standing beneath the helicopter rotors, Schmidt, a trim, tanned marathon runner (she has run 54 marathons since 1990), declared, “The enemies of terror are on the march. America has lost its innocence.” She recounted a meeting she’d had with the president. “President Bush told me to get down on my knees and pray for every soldier. This president understands our troops.”
A former two-term state representative and president of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati, Schmidt was dubbed “Mean Jean” during her bruising June primary (11 Republicans had piled on for what they assumed was a shoo-in seat, spending as much as $1 million to secure the nomination), and she was terse and tough in our interview. I asked her whether she would soften her antiabortion stance in cases where the life of the mother is in danger. “No, it’s murder,” she snapped. “You are still killing the baby. It’s an innocent life.”
What would she do about the torture scandals at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib? “Let’s make sure that they’re real scandals before we take any action,” she replied.
Was there anything she liked about her opponent? She drew her lips into a tight smile. “The fact that he’s an American,” she said, and walked away. She sought me out later to add, “I think anyone that serves their country deserves respect for that service.”
When I asked Hackett about his adversaries’ admonitions, he shook his head in a flash of anger. “I don’t have to take an oath to love any man living in the White House. My oath is to the office. I respect the office. I respect the Constitution and I serve the Constitution. He’s not a king. He’s not an emperor. He’s a servant. He’s on no higher pedestal than me.”
ELECTION DAY FOUND HACKETT once again at the wheel of the Honda hybrid, en route to the Hamilton County Fair. His children were submitting their chickens in a 4H contest, and TV cameras were waiting to shoot the candidate mingling with kids and fowl. I took advantage of the ride to quiz Hackett on his Iraq position. He argued that, though he disagreed with the reasons for the war, the troops should stay to train Iraqi forces. “If we pull out now, that place is going to spiral into chaos,” he insisted.
But wouldn’t a lot more Marines die under his scenario? “That’s unfortunate, but it’s true,” he replied. “They’re going to die because we’re over there. The question is, do we try to salvage this operation by doing it right, or do we just write it off as a loss today? I find that discouraging.” I asked how he felt about organizations such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, which has been demanding an immediate pullout. He hadn’t heard of the group. “Maybe they’re just a hair away from where I’m at,” he mused, “and maybe I’m just still optimistic enough and naive enough to believe that we can pull it out and get the job done of training these people.”
Was it just too painful, I asked, for a Marine who fought for seven months to contemplate that nothing more may be accomplished by staying? Hackett’s cocksure demeanor fell away. He paused, staring straight ahead. “I don’t know,” he finally sighed. “I’ve only been back four months, man.”
Moments later, Ryan Pettit, riding shotgun as Hackett’s aide-de-camp, interrupted to say that eight Marines had just been killed in Iraq and the mother of one of them wanted to speak to Hackett. The candidate was thrown off guard. “What? I can’t deal with this right now,” he stammered, shaking his head. Suddenly, the cell phone rang and Pettit handed it to him.
Hackett fell silent as he listened to the Marine’s mother. He pulled the car over. “Oh, Jesus,” he blurted. His oratorical voice became a hoarse whisper. “I’m so sorry,” he said, eyes downcast. “I’m so sorry for your loss. Please,” he said, his voice cracking, “please pass along my condolences to your family.” He hung up, pulled back onto the pavement, and gulped down a sob as he drove. By the end of the following day, we would learn that 10 Marines from Ohio had been killed in one horrific 24-hour period in Iraq.
A few weeks later, with more distance from the front lines, Hackett’s views on the war had shifted. “It’s apparent that not only the American people, but this administration are unwilling to commit to any substantive change in effectively training the Iraqi forces,” he told me. “If that’s the case, then let’s make the move now to stop spending money and lives in Iraq.” He takes a dim view of the armchair hawks in his own party: “Right now the Democratic party is screaming to put more troops over there,” he says. “That’s just not gonna happen. It’s not grounded in reality.
“Iraq will steadily disintegrate—if we leave tomorrow or five years from now. Why not just admit that, say ‘mission accomplished’ or whatever you’re gonna say, and bring everybody home today.”
IN THE FINAL WEEK of the campaign, the big guns arrived in southern Ohio. The Republican National Committee dispatched staff from Washington to shore up Schmidt’s faltering bid, and the National Republican Congressional Committee swamped the airwaves with a half-million dollars’ worth of attack ads accusing Hackett of, among other things, supporting higher taxes when he was on the Milford City Council.
Hackett had his own secret weapon, though. With a conspiratorial flourish, he ushered me into the Goldminer’s Inn, a dive around the corner from campaign headquarters and the lair of what he called “the insurgents.” Huddled in a smoky corner were Bob Brigham and Tim Tagaris of Swing State Project and Matt DeBergalis of the liberal fundraising website ActBlue.com. They had come from California, Massachusetts, and northern Ohio armed with laptops, cellular modems, and digital cameras, their weapons of choice in rallying the online troops.
The bloggers were cocky about what the netroots—the online version of the grassroots—could deliver. Brigham, a tall, skinny 27-year-old software designer clad in well-worn low-slung jeans declared, “We can move people, money, and message, and do it 24/7. We’re non-state actors, and this is postmodern politics.” His dispatches from the candidate’s living room, his car, and from the bar were posted by his and other widely read blogs such as Daily Kos and MyDD; in all, he said, more than 50 bloggers had helped raise money and turn out volunteers for Hackett.
The insurgents delivered big time: They out-fundraised the national Democratic Party, hauling in some $500,000 of the campaign’s $850,000 total, with nearly 9,000 people giving an average of $50 each. In a show of blogforce on the campaign’s last day, Swing State Project put out the word at 10:30 a.m. that Hackett needed $30,000 for get-out-the-vote operations. Six hours later, $60,000 had poured in and Brigham had to tell people to stop giving.
The success and brashness of the netroots highlighted a widening fissure among national Democrats. Hackett’s blunt challenge to political convention appealed both to the fiercely independent—and generous—Internet base, and to conservative voters who might not agree with all of Hackett’s positions. With both groups, Hackett was scoring points because he didn’t sound like a Democrat.
And he didn’t have to sound like one—because he owed the party nothing. Washington had left him to fend for himself for much of the summer; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) responded to his initial appeal for help by encouraging him to come back if and when he’d raised $100,000. (The DCCC would ultimately jump on the Hackett bandwagon, spending close to $300,000, mostly for anti-Schmidt attack ads aired in the closing five days, and bringing in about 10 staffers for the final push.)
On the ground, the party’s image wasn’t helped by surly media handlers and clueless operatives. At one get-out-the-vote site, the Washington organizers showed up at 6:30 a.m. stocked with food and coffee for themselves, leaving local activists to go hungry. The tension spilled into the open the day after the election, with Brigham of Swing State Project charging in theWashington Post that the DCCC “came in late, and it makes them look irrelevant in everyone’s eyes.” A DCCC blogger, in turn, accused Brigham of lying.
John Lapp, who became DCCC executive director last January, has lately been at pains to tamp down the fires. “I think the progressive blogs had a massive role to play in being able to provide the candidate with resources, momentum, and energy,” he says. Lapp insists that the national party’s caution was deliberate: “We made a decision to come in late to allow Paul Hackett to establish himself and his story and come to his defense at the very end.” Had the DCCC come in earlier, he argues, “we would have tripped the NRCC into waging a classic smear campaign.”
The insurgents are unmoved. Brigham invokes DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s 50-State Strategy: “You gotta fight everywhere to win anywhere.” They point out that between 2000 and 2004, more than a quarter of House seats were unchallenged or only lightly contested by Democrats. Jerome Armstrong, who runs the popular MyDD blog, wrote on tompaine.com, “Paul Hackett was the first step in resuscitating the party after the 2004 defeat.… Let’s run 232 Hackett-like operations against the Republicans in the elections of 2006, and plenty of swing-district wins will walk out of the wilderness on Election Day.” (In early August, DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel announced that in 2006, the committee will double the number of Democratic challengers it funds—to about 50, out of 231 Republican-held seats nationwide.)
On the night I visited the Goldminer’s Inn the bloggers were in high dudgeon. Alternating swigs of beer and draws on his cigarette, the frenetic Brigham insisted, “I support fighting Democrats who aren’t ashamed to be Democrats and who aren’t members of the DLC,” the Democratic Leadership Council that is the ideological home of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman. Hackett, listening in, piped up, “What’s the DLC?”
ON ELECTION DAY, with some 700 volunteers from around the country out knocking on doors and chasing down every last vote, Hackett announced that he was leaving to attend “an engagement.” He was tight-lipped about the nature of the outing, but privately confessed: Springsteen was playing Cincinnati. “My campaign manager told me ‘no way.’ I just told him, ‘Dave, you’ve got to get your priorities straight.’”
The next night, Hackett took the stage himself, at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center, walking into his election party to the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly tanned, grinning, and spinning an imaginary revolver. It was a confident pose for a guy who’d just lost an election: After an evening of seesawing results, which had Hackett winning in early returns, Schmidt took the race by 3,500 votes, a 3.5 percent margin.
Onstage, Hackett never actually conceded the loss. Instead, he declared, “We can take this to other regions of the country and other regions of the state. I don’t want to see any teary eyes—this was a success!” Echoing his rallying cry as a Marine, he bellowed, “Let’s rock on!”
At the party, an Indian Hill neighbor of Hackett’s, attorney Michele Young, charged over to tell me what she thought had gone wrong. “When the DNC came in here two weeks ago, they brought in money and volunteers, but they were thinking the old way”—aiming their get-out-the-vote effort at likely Democrats. But Hackett’s strongest showing was in areas where he drew large numbers of Republican and independent voters. The DNC “were traditional thinkers with an outside-the-box candidate,” she insisted. “That’s why they lost.”
Still, the party hierarchy is clearly salivating over Hackett—though whether it aims to control a maverick or follow him remains to be seen. In the weeks after the election, Hackett’s phone rang off the hook with calls from power brokers such as Senator Chuck Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who invited him to come to Washington—a none-too-subtle hint that they back Hackett in his bid for DeWine’s Senate seat.
As Hackett moves forward, he will take fire from all sides. If the fate of Howard Dean’s antiwar candidacy is any indication, Democrats as well as Republicans will slam his anti-Bush rhetoric. Hackett’s own flaws—his hotheadedness, his political inexperience—will offer his opponents plenty of ammunition. A statewide race could quickly become a national barometer, with both parties pouring millions of dollars into Ohio as a down payment on 2008.
Hackett can taste the coming battle, and he likes it. Talking about what lies down the road, he sounds exactly the way he did during the August campaign, when he’d don his Ray-Bans and leap out of the car to change a few more minds: “You gotta get out there and fight the fight.”