Ohio: The Democratic Killing Fields

     Ohio has played a pivotal role in Presidential politics for years now.  It was the key state for Bush in 2004.  In 2008, it went to Obama.  The axiom that you cannot win the Presidency without winning Ohio still stands.  Considering that Ohio should be a debacle for the Democratic Party in 2010 may be the handwriting on the wall for Obama in 2012.

     Incumbent Democratic Governor Ted Strickland finds himself in a serious fight with challenger John Kasich.  In reality, this race is the Democratic Party’s best chance to stop the bleeding in Ohio which is kind of sad all things considered.  The fact that Obama flew into Ohio to support the Governor- not the Senate or House incumbents- is essentially troublesome.  For Strickland, his fortunes are tied to the state’s floundering economy.  Although he has been firing away of late taking Kasich down a few notches, his overall position has not improved as he fails to poll above the 45% mark.  For Kasich, his Achilles Heel is the fact that he worked for the failed investment firm, Lehman Brothers, and all the baggage that entails.  And while this is fodder for the Strickland campaign, he must justify his state’s failing economy, high unemployment, and flight of population out of the state which should cost them electoral votes in the next decade.  If Kasich stays on message regarding the current economic reality, he should prevail in Ohio.  Incidentally, Kasich was a key Congressional leader the last time the federal government had a balanced budget.

     The Senate race initially was viewed as a potential Democratic pick-up seat.  However, because of changes in the status of other races, Democrats are now forced to play defense in those states as the Ohio race has drifted out of sight.  The seat is currently held by Republican John Voinovich who announced his retirement.  When that was announced, Rob Portman, a former Congressman and Bush administration official, announced his candidacy.  Originally, Tom Ganley was his only primary opponent, but he dropped out to pursue the 13th District Congressional seat making Portman unopposed.  By this time, he had amassed $9 million.

     On the Democratic side, Lt. Governor Lee Fisher had to fight off state official Brunner in a fierce primary campaign where he emerged with 55% of the vote.  Strickland had urged Brunner to withdraw from the race.

     The Senate race in Ohio should be an abject lesson to the Democratic Party when it comes to the economy.  Portman was the U.S. Trade Representative and Director of the OMB under George W. Bush.  The strategy of the Democrats was simple- portray Portman as “the same failed policies of the last eight years.”  This is a theme still echoed by Democrats around the country and by Obama himself.  As in other races, the electorate does not want to hear it any more.  Yet, go to any liberal of democratic website and they continue to beat that same old, tired drum.  The result in Ohio is that Portman has surged ahead and since early September, he hit and has stayed at or above the 50% level in the polls.  On average, he leads by about 14 points.  In fact, Obama’s most recent visit to Ohio was more for Strickland than it was for Fisher.  Because as bad as the “same failed policies of the past eight years” allegedly are, the demonstrable failed policies of the past two years are what is on the minds of Ohio voters.

     Also, the portrayal of Portman does not match with reality.  While a Congressman, he was known for his bipartisanship.  Democratic operatives noted that during the 1998 IRS overhaul, he was instrumental in passing that legislation.  He also gets kudos from environmental groups for his work in Congress in protecting the world’s rain forests.  And as Director of the OMB, he was noted for his professionalism and staying above the fray during contentious budget disagreements.  He resigned in 2007 to spend more time with his family.

     In the Congressional races, Democrats hold ten of Ohio’s 18 seats.  Of the eight Republican seats, perhaps only the 12th District is potentially competitive.  In 2008, Obama won the district with over 60% of the vote and the district is nominally rated Democratic.  The primary reason for the large Obama victory was the large black turn out in the Columbus area (the district is 22% black).  But there is no Obama at the top of the ticket.  In Paula Brooks, the Democrats believe they have the ideal candidate to unseat Pat Tiberi.  Despite a 3-1 fundraising advantage for Tiberi, Brooks was hanging close, but Tiberi has since moved ahead.  Hence, given decreased black turn out, top-down voting behavior and Tiberi’s momentum heading towards November, the Republicans will prevail here.

     Of the ten Democratic seats, five are in trouble.  In the 1st District, Steve Driehaus faces a serious challenge against Steve Chabot, the man he defeated in 2008.  Working against Driehaus is the anticipated lower black turn out in the Cincinnati area and no Obama at the top of the ticket.  The same dynamics that will keep Tiberi in office will sweep Driehaus out of office.  In fact, Driehaus now trails by about 9 points in the polls as Chabot has hit the 50% mark.  Additionally, although the district contains 80% of Cincinnati, it also contains ample rural areas along the Indiana/Kentucky border.

     In Ohio’s 13th District- which includes Akron- Betty Sutton faces Tom Ganley.  This area was formerly represented by Sherrod Brown, perhaps one of the most liberal members of the Senate.  In fundraising, Sutton is at a serious disadvantage- a rarity for incumbents.  Of course, Ganley’s own money is partly responsible for this.  Perhaps, that is because she was one of the key architects of cap-and-trade legislation.  How that plays in a district centered around industrial Akron remains to be seen.  And Sutton has certainly endeared herself to liberals.  It was her amendment to another bill that created the largely unsuccessful “cash for clunkers” program.  And she was an early and vocal proponent of the public option in the health reform debate.  Many of these positions are at odds with those of this declining area of Ohio as manufacturing and population moves elsewhere.  Sutton may be the last gasp of liberalism in this district mainly because Ganley has shot himself in the foot.

     In central Ohio, Mary Jo Kilroy represents the 15th District.  Here, you are starting to get into more traditionally conservative areas of Ohio.  She will take on State Senator Steve Stivers again.  She won in 2008 only after absentee ballots were counted, thus eeking out victory.  And Kilroy’s Democrtaic line voting is the albatross around her neck.  In fact, Stivers has outraised Kilroy by about $300,000- again, a rarity for incumbents and generally a sign of weak support.  Considering she barely won election last time out, it is no surprise that Stivers leads in the polls, although this race should again come down to the wire.

     In Ohio’s 16th District, John Boccierri finds himself in even more serious trouble against Jim Renacci.  Although Boccierri leads in fundraising, the differences are not that great.  This is conservative territory (rated +4 Republican on Cook PVI) around Canton, fairly rural with a low minority population- all factors favoring the Republicans.  So it si no surprise that Renacci is up by 8 points in the polls.  This is by far the most likely Democratic loss in Ohio.  Additionally, Boccierri voted for all three major Obama initiatives (although he voted against the Senate version of Obamacare).

     Finally, there is the 18th District held by Zach Space.  Facing off against Bob Gibbs, a State Senator, he leads the money race 6-1. Despite this, the race is essentially a dead heat.  This is not good news for Space.  Very rural and Republican leaning to start with a low minority population, the demographics definitely favor Gibbs.  Considering that Space was voted in among an ethics scandal involving his predecessor, everything points to a Republican pick-up here in another close race.  I reach this conclusion based on the momentum of Gibbs despite the serious money disadvantage.

     Considering that Ted Strickland won in 2006 with over 60% of the vote- one of the largest victory margins in recent Ohio history for Governor- the fact that he even trails Kasich illustrates the troubles for Democrats in Ohio.  They are in retreat.  What once appeared a promising Senate seat pick-up quickly turned to a debacle.  The Bush-bashing strategy did not work even against a former Bush official.  Republicans are on target to pick up 4, possibly 5 seats in the House out of Ohio.  Perhaps only in neighboring Pennsylvania will there be a worse loss for the Democratic Party in Congressional races.  Forget about the side show of Nazi-garbed candidates or the false hope of unseating the kindergarten-looking Dennis Kucinich.  The economy, along with the same failed policies of the past TWO years under Obama, have played the greatest role in bringing down the Democratic Party in the Buckeye State.  Come November 2nd, this will be a major killing field for Democrats.