From Tom Paine:
The Battle Over Hackett
October 31, 2005
David Goodman is co-author of The Exception to the Rulers, which was recently released in paperback. He profiles Hackett in the current issue of Mother Jones .
The announcement last week by Iraq War veteran Paul Hackett that he will run for U.S. Senate in Ohio as a Democrat should make incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine very nervous. But as this straight-talking Marine storms the national political stage, there’s another group that should also be concerned: the Democrats.
Paul Hackett burst onto the national scene this summer when he nearly won a special election in rock-ribbed conservative southern Ohio. In a congressional district that Republicans have had a lock on for most of the last century—a place that George W. Bush took handily with nearly two-thirds of the vote a year ago—Hackett won a stunning 48 percent of the vote. The Republicans had to pour a half-million dollars to hang on to one of the reddest Congressional seats in America. Newt Gingrich called Hackett’s insurgency “a wake-up call to Republicans.”
Democrats naturally applauded the near upset. But as I traveled around southern Ohio covering the final days of the campaign, I saw that Hackett was scoring points precisely because he didn’t sound like a Democrat. He criticized the party’s stand on gun control, often referred to President Bush as a “chicken hawk,” and, unlike many Democrats, opposed the Iraq occupation, declaring famously, “I don’t like the sonofabitch that lives in the White House, but I’d put my life on the line for him.”
Hackett sparked a populist groundswell. Rarely mentioning his party affiliation, he forged connections in the staunchly conservative rural areas by, among other things, emphasizing his enthusiasm for hunting and gun sports and his military service. He used this to cobble together 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 his opponent, Jean Schmidt, he said about 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 is pro-choice, anti-war, pro-gay civil unions and anti-NAFTA/CAFTA—and Republicans love him for it. Guys like Dan Johns, a burly Vietnam vet, heating contractor and proud Republican. I found him volunteering to get out the vote for Hackett. Did he vote for Kerry? “God, no. I hated him. He’s too liberal. He was trying to appease the doves," Johns said. 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.”
That gut connection won Hackett four of the seven counties that comprise the Ohio second district. These are the rural areas that Democrats long ago abandoned, and where Kerry lost by as much as 30 percent just eight months earlier. Hackett won in some of these counties by up to 30 percent. A Zogby poll in September showed Hackett beating DeWine, 44 to 36 percent—an astounding early showing for a political newcomer in Ohio politics challenging a two-term incumbent senator.
Hackett’s views on the Iraq occupation pose a direct challenge to the Democratic establishment. A Marine Corps major who returned in March from a seven-month stint in Iraq, Hackett’s position during the summer was that he opposed the war, but felt American troops needed to stay until an Iraqi army could be trained. But he has tired of watching the body counts rise—and of hearing leaders of his own party, such as Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, respond by calling for more bodies to add to the hopeless conflagration. He now says the pro-war Democrats are “not grounded in reality,” and is calling for the troops to be brought home.
“Iraq will steadily disintegrate—if we leave tomorrow or five years from now,” he told me. “Why not just admit that, say ‘mission accomplished’ or whatever you’re gonna say, and bring everybody home today?” It’s a courageous position that Hackett has proved can win votes—a fact that Democratic leaders politely ignore as they cheer him on.
Paul Hackett is now poised to take his message to Washington by taking on one of the most vulnerable Republican senators. He must first win in a Democratic primary in May 2006 against seven-term Ohio congressman Sherrod Brown, who had earlier stated that he wouldn’t run, then changed his mind and entered the Senate race in early October three days after Hackett declared his intention to run. Brown’s late entry resulted in calls by some national Democrats for Hackett to withdraw. Instead, Hackett officially launched his campaign on Oct. 24, repeatedly railing against “career politicians” in an opening shot against both Brown and DeWine.
Hackett’s outsider status and his insurgent populist message make the old line pols of both parties uncomfortable—which may help explain why he was so successful at siphoning off votes that were not so much Republican as they were anti-Washington. Hackett’s candor, and his willingness to lead where the Democrats won’t, has earned him both followers and cash. He has become a rock star in the blogosphere, which delivered big time—out-fundraising the national Democratic party organizations. Indeed, Hackett’s spectacular grassroots success made many activists wonder openly whether the Democratic National Committee was even relevant anymore.
The Brown-Hackett face-off has sparked a furious and often personal debate among liberal bloggers about which candidate is more deserving of backing. The argument goes that Brown, a veteran progressive legislator (he was a leader in the unsuccessful fight against CAFTA earlier this year), has a proven liberal voting record and as such should be rewarded with dollars and votes. Hackett supporters counter that their guy is a progressive populist who appeals beyond the Democratic base and win in places like conservative southern Ohio—and thus take the state.
The two sides are relentlessly slinging mud at each other, eagerly misquoting and misrepresenting the other’s candidate in a time-honored ritual of liberal self-immolation. The result is that at best, the netroots will divide its support between the candidates during the primary. That may give an initial edge to Brown, who has $2 million in his campaign war chest. But Hackett relishes the fight as an outsider and underdog, and has parlayed this before to overcome long odds.
With the Republican establishment buckling from the rot of corruption, and the risk-averse Democratic leadership offering precious little leadership, Paul Hackett represents a rare alternative: a straight-shooting, independent-minded populist who is unafraid to call it as he sees it. He has already made clear how threatening he can be to Republicans. The question for Democrats is: Where Major Paul Hackett leads, do they have the guts to follow?