In the valley where Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky meet, people complain about the state of the nation, voicing as many frustrations as there are turns in the Ohio River.
“Everything’s going all to hell,” said Jeremy Newman, 23, of Crestwood, Ky., who backed President Bush in 2004 but says he now regrets it.
“The war is a problem. It’s senseless,” fretted another unhappy Bush voter, Maria Hall, 56, upriver in Scottsburg, Ind. She has a son in the Navy.
“The economy’s hurting everywhere,” lamented Jim Meyer, 59, in Greenhills, Ohio, who also supported Bush two years ago.
And don’t get voters in this part of the country started on the job market, federal spending or gas prices. “Terrible.” “Outrageous.” “Out of sight.” All are common reactions.
The anxiety is palpable, and Democrats hope it will help them seize control of Congress this fall. In the House, they need to gain 15 seats to topple Republicans who have been in power for a dozen years — and four GOP-held districts in the Ohio River Valley could help put them within reach.
Two months before Election Day, it’s unclear whether Democrats can capitalize on voter unhappiness. Interviews with more than five dozen people in this conservative region show a desire for change but a hesitancy to embrace Democrats.
“They’re too liberal,” said Bob Hudson, 67, a Republican from La Grange, Ky., who talked of the old days when his ancestors in the valley supported Democrats in the vein of Harry S. Truman and Jimmy Carter.
The Ohio River cuts a wide swath 981 miles from western Pennsylvania to southern Illinois, creating a valley of picturesque hamlets, suburbs and urban centers anchored by Evansville, Ind., Louisville, Ky., Cincinnati and Huntington, W.Va.
Men and women in the region have heeded the call for military service, so much so that the percentage of veterans in these states is in double digits. Ohio alone has lost more than 120 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. People in the valley also are socially conservative, more apt to back anti-abortion and pro-gun candidates. A manufacturing region, its economy struggles even in national boom times.
The area has trended Republican in recent years. President Bush won the four states that make up the majority of the valley — Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia — twice, in 2000 and 2004. Despite that, every two years bring hard-fought congressional races.
This fall is no exception.
If they can win seats here held by conservatives, Democrats argue, they almost certainly will knock off clusters of moderate GOP incumbents in Democratic-leaning states in the Northeast and elsewhere.
Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Republicans’ campaign committee, cast doubt that Democrats would sweep the Ohio River Valley and said each race stands on its own. “This is classic all politics is local,” he said.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., the head of the party’s House campaign effort, called the region fertile ground for Democrats, partly because of its economic hardships under Republican rule. “Every seat is important when you’re this close,” he said.
So Democrats are waging fierce campaigns — and plan to run massive amounts of advertising — against Republican Reps. John Hostettler and Mike Sodrel, whose districts blanket southern Indiana; Geoff Davis in northern Kentucky, and Steve Chabot in Cincinnati.
They also must play defense in a couple of Democratic-held districts in the region. Republicans are gunning for Rep. Alan Mollohan (news, bio, voting record)’s seat in northern West Virginia and a southeast Ohio district given up by Rep. Ted Strickland (news, bio, voting record) to run for governor.
Nationally, polls show this campaign season ripe for Democrats.
Roughly two of three people disapprove of the job the president is doing, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll in August. The GOP-run Congress fares even worse, with about one of four people disapproving and a majority favoring a Democratic takeover of the House and Senate.
At the same time, fewer than half of all Americans support Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism, foreign policy, the economy and other domestic issues. Most of the country now says that going to war in Iraq in March 2003 was a mistake.
The Ohio River Valley mirrors national trends, save for slightly higher marks people in the region give Bush for his handling of foreign policy and the war on terrorism.
“They’re getting very disenchanted,” said Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.Va., adding that “the conditions appear surprisingly ready” for Democrats.
Still, within weeks of the Nov. 7 general election, Democrats have some work to do to convince voters here that the party of Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, national chairman Howard Dean and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi should take over Congress.
“I’m too scared of what’ll happen if we don’t” stick with the GOP, said Brad Miller, 31, a Republican car salesman eating lunch at Lainey’s Latte Cafe in Crestwood, Ky.
Across the river in New Albany, Ind., Monica Striegel, 46 and a Democratic-leaning independent who voted for John Kerry in 2004, expressed frustration with the Iraq war but was lukewarm about putting Democrats in charge. “I don’t know if they’d do a better job,” the accountant said.
In Springfield Township, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, five retirees — three Democrats and two self-described independents — rested after their daily walk and identified what they called the Democratic Party’s biggest challenge in the Ohio River Valley.
“In this region, they don’t want anyone who’s halfway liberal,” said Lou Parks, 65, a Democrat.
The race in Indiana’s southwestern congressional district pits Democrat Brad Ellsworth, a county sheriff, against Hostettler, a six-term Republican.
In southeast Indiana, former Democratic Rep. Baron Hill is trying to win back a seat he held for six years. Sodrel, a freshman Republican, defeated Hill by 1,425 votes in 2004, when Bush was on the ballot. This is the third time the two have run against each other.
Kentucky and Ohio host two other rematches.
Former Rep. Ken Lucas, a Democrat who left office after three terms to fulfill a campaign pledge, came out of retirement to challenge Davis, a Republican in his first term, in a northern Kentucky district. And, in southwest Ohio, John Cranley, a Democratic city councilman in Cincinnati, is running again against Chabot, a Republican who has held the seat for 12 years.
Democrats describe their candidates in the four districts as moderates who reflect the political, economic and cultural viewpoints of their would-be constituents. Party strategists say the region will get to know the four through television ads in the coming weeks.
Republicans portray the Democratic challengers as tax-raisers on the wrong side of immigration reform and link them to Dean, the former anti-war presidential candidate, and to Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat.
“A vote for my opponent is a vote to put her in control of Congress,” Chabot said, calling Cranley “a liberal who’s trying to hide his liberal views.”
“They trot that stuff out. It doesn’t work,” Cranley countered. He disputed the characterization of him as a liberal and cited his endorsements from groups of moderate Democrats.
Underscoring how competitive the race is, voters in the district are divided along party lines.
JoAnn James, 71 and a die-hard Republican, was filled with praise for Chabot and Republicans who control Congress, saying they’re “doing great.”
“We need a change” said Paulette Sellers, 56, a Democrat and a department store saleswoman.
Amid all the tit-for-tat of campaign season, there are some signs of hope for Democrats.
Nationally, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll in August found that 19 percent of people who backed Bush in 2004 over Kerry are ready to vote Democratic this fall.
That trend also shows up in the Ohio River Valley.
“I don’t like the way the country’s been run. We keep going further into debt,” said Emett Wycoff, 73, selling watermelons and tomatoes on a Henryville, Ind., roadside. He tends to “vote for the man” and supported Bush in 2004 but plans to side with Democrats this time.
Rick Faith, 53 and a Democrat, also voted for Bush two years ago but won’t cross party lines in November. Easygoing, Faith is sour because of oil, Iraq and jobs; he was temporarily laid off from a Ford factory near Louisville.
“Republicans,” he said, “are just not gettin’ it done.”
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press