By Andrea Hopkins

Republican Rep. Bob Ney, dogged by ties to disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, dropped out of the U.S. mid-term election race on Monday in a move that analysts said hurts Democratic chances of gaining ground in the November ballot.

Election watchers said Ney’s decision to quit puts his central Ohio district onto firmer footing for Republicans by depriving Democrats of a favorite poster-boy for the bribery investigation that has plagued Congress.

"This actually gives the Republicans a shot at holding the seat," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst who tracks congressional races. "Ney was bound to fail, so this is a recognition of reality."

Veteran Ohio lawmaker Joy Padgett said she will seek the Republican nomination to replace Ney on the ballot, and quickly distanced herself from the Abramoff scandal.

"Those are Bob Ney’s problems, they are not my problems. I do not know who Jack Abramoff is, I’ve never met him," Padgett said in an interview. "I do not believe (voters) are going to hang that baggage on me."

A Republican strategist who declined to be named said the party will quickly line up behind Padgett, who has been in the state senate since 2004 and was in the state house from 1993 to 1999. Padgett said both Ney and House of Representatives Majority Leader John Boehner support her candidacy.

"I think that in very short order — days, not weeks — you’ll begin to see the party apparatus coalescing behind the senator," the strategist said. "Too many people have too much at stake here to let this thing drag out."

A primary date has not yet been set. A spokesman for Ohio Republican Party Chairman Robert Bennett said Ney, who won the original May primary with 68 percent of the vote, must withdraw his name from the ballot by August 18.


The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which helps organize and fund key election races, said it remained confident Democrat Zack Space would win the race, arguing Padgett was already tainted by ties to Ney and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.

"The first thing we know about Joy Padgett is that she’s Ney’s handpicked candidate … So we remain optimistic about our chances," said DCCC communications director Bill Burton.

Taft has also been caught in a corruption scandal and has pleaded no contest to state ethics violations.

Democrats say Ney was so damaged by the corruption scandal that his solid Republican district was one of their best chances to gain one of the 15 seats they need to take control of the House.

Ney, first elected in 1994, is under federal investigation for his ties to lobbyist Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to fraud and admitted lawmakers with Super Bowl tickets, travel junkets and other gifts to win favors for his lobbying clients.

Ney has denied any wrongdoing but his former chief of staff, Neil Volz, pleaded guilty in May and agreed to cooperate in the expanding investigation.

Former Republican House leader Tom DeLay, once one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, resigned after becoming embroiled in the Abramoff scandal.

With Ney’s announcement, election handicappers immediately shuffled the seat from "leaning Democratic" to a toss-up — or even a likely Republican win — despite Padgett’s late start to the race.

"I wouldn’t count Space or the Democrats out since the national environment and the state environment in Ohio is extremely poor for Republicans, but it certainly makes it a lot more difficult for Space," said Nathan Gonzales, who handicaps elections for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

A poll released last month by Space showed Ney with just 35 percent support in the district, compared to Space’s 46 percent. Nineteen percent were undecided.

© 2006 Reuters