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Dems see Ohio as key to retaking control of Congress

By
March 2, 2006

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Deborah Pryce is chairwoman of the Republican Conference, making her No. 4 in the House leadership structure and the highest-ranking woman in her party.

But this year, back in her central Ohio district, those accomplishments could hurt as much as they help.

The seven-term incumbent is looking ahead to a general election contest against a popular local Democrat who was recruited by national leaders and promised all the money and help she needs.

Local Republican Party officials stressed to about 500 Pryce supporters at her campaign kickoff luncheon last week how important their support will be this time around. Pryce predicted she will be re-elected but acknowledged, "This will be the toughest I’ve faced."

Ohio may have been the swing state that sealed President Bush’s re-election in 2004, but in this year’s midterm elections, Democrats consider it a centerpiece of their nationwide guilt-by-party-association strategy to retake control of one or both chambers of Congress.

"It is the swingiest of the swing states," said Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which analyzes national races. "It’s become a very large symbol of how things all seem to hang in the balance. Democrats are hoping that winning here sets them a pretty clear path to 2008."

Democrats’ long-shot goal to regain power would require a net gain of six Senate seats and 15 House seats across the country. They’re looking to Ohio for at least 20 percent of those. Their targets include Pryce, whose district has become more Democratic; Bob Ney, whose connections to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff are being scrutinized by federal investigators considering criminal charges; and Sen. Mike DeWine, who polls suggest could be vulnerable because of conservatives’ lukewarm support for him and the divided partisanship of the state as a whole. The president traveled to Ohio recently to raise money for DeWine. Democrats also have some designs on Rep. Steve Chabot’s district, which barely backed Bush in the last election.

Nationally, Democrats are banking on voters’ disillusion with the Iraq war, localized job losses, fuel prices and a couple of high-profile federal corruption scandals that so far have ensnared more Republicans by virtue of their majority status.

In Ohio, Democrats are counting on a multiplier effect.

The economy here has suffered particularly from an exodus of manufacturing jobs.

Republicans, who control state government, also are reeling from state corruption scandals involving cronyism and millions of dollars in workers’ compensation funds being handed to a GOP fund-raiser to invest in rare coins. Outgoing Gov. Bob Taft last year pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges for failing to disclose gifts, and polls suggest he is one of the most unpopular public officials in the nation.

Ney, who accepted gifts and support from Abramoff and took some official actions that records suggest benefited the lobbyist’s clients, is the first lawmaker to be implicated by Abramoff in court documents. Abramoff recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges in a sprawling corruption investigation and is cooperating with prosecutors looking at whether public officials took bribes. Ney has not been charged with any crimes, but he has been forced to relinquish a committee chairmanship and has retained a lawyer pending further action by a grand jury.

Lawmakers up for re-election don’t want to be associated with any of this. Pryce told reporters at her campaign event that while she usually agrees with the Bush administration’s positions, "I’ve deviated from voting with the president on several major items, and I’ll continue to do so if I believe that’s in the best interests of this country and my constituents."

She called the controversial U.S. port security deal with a United Arab Emirates firm "a terrible mistake." And she said, flatly, "I’m not a part of the congressional scandals."

But Democrats’ ability to tilt the balance in Ohio is far from clear.

They already have been hampered by infighting and organizational foibles.

Democrats may now be in jeopardy of losing the 6th Congressional District in Ohio, a somewhat conservative district being vacated by Rep. Ted Strickland, who is running for governor.

State Sen. Charlie Wilson, the Democrat considered to have the best shot against a Republican, has learned his name wouldn’t appear on the primary ballot because too many of the signatures he’d collected to qualify had been tossed out as invalid. He was two signatures short of the 50 needed. With two other Democrats on the ballot, Wilson now must take his chances as a write-in candidate.

"It just made me almost physically ill," Strickland said. "I feel some frustration and anger, quite frankly. It was his responsibility as a candidate."

In the 13th Congressional District, Democrat Sherrod Brown is giving up his seat to challenge DeWine for the Senate. Campaigning in Putnam County, a rural, northern stretch of the state, past sad, gray towns with boarded-up buildings, Brown sought to link DeWine to the state’s embattled governor.

"Ohio’s leadership team of Bob Taft and Mike DeWine for the last 15 years has taken this state in the wrong direction," Brown said while touring Verhoff Machine and Welding, a company thankful to have gotten a subcontract making armor plating for U.S. military vehicles in Iraq, to stanch the loss of business from local firms relocating to Mexico.

"We’ve lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs during Mike DeWine’s last term," Brown said. "It’s a referendum on the party, a referendum on a lack of leadership."

But if voters don’t blame DeWine as much for those things, Brown may have a tough road. DeWine has a fairly moderate, independent reputation, having broken with party leadership on Democrats’ right to filibuster controversial judicial nominees. Brown, who voted against the use of force in Iraq, has a liberal record, meanwhile, that some political analysts say could be a tougher sell with some of the suburban and rural swing voters he’d need to win statewide.

Brown’s early indecision on whether to run for the Senate led to the short-lived candidacy of Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett. Hackett, although once recruited by the party to run, earlier this month was publicly pressured out by the same leaders. Hackett was furious about what happened _ and some Democrat activists said they were turned off.

Ney’s seat also could elude Democrats, four of whom have crowded into a primary for the right to challenge him. In Ney’s vast, winding, rural district, south and east of Columbus, many constituents said last week they weren’t aware of the Abramoff controversy. Others said they’d heard bits and pieces but thought that in six terms of office Ney has taken good care of his constituents, and that was more important than his relationship with a lobbyist.

Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer, a former state lawmaker and one of the Democrats in the primary, said he thinks voters will become more engaged once the general election gets under way.

"He’s a poster child for the culture of corruption that we see in Washington," Sulzer said of Ney during an interview at a hometown Chamber of Commerce event. "It’s an education process, to show voters the Bob Ney they think they know is not the Bob Ney who’s been in office."

But Marvin Jones, the chamber’s president, said plenty of voters are inclined to give Ney the benefit of the doubt.

"People really are just kind of waiting to see how it unfolds, waiting to see probably what happens with potential charges … and how he responds," he said.

"There have been no charges," Jones said. And even if there were, he added, "It probably depends on the severity of them."

–By Margaret Talev
McClatchy Newspapers