If the Republican party is to rebuild from the ashes of 2006 and 2008–if it is to remain a competitive national party and not a regional party–it cannot lose its grip on Ohio. The Buckeye State is notable because no Republican has ever won the presidency without it. It is also a typical swing state and a microcosm of the nation, with a mix of urban, suburban, and rural populations comprising a diversity of demographics.
With the retirement of Sen. George Voinovich (R.), the next election may be the test of just how competitive Republicans can be in the age of Obama.
The test does not come at the best time for Ohio’s Republican party. Since winning the state’s electoral votes for George W. Bush in 2004, the Ohio GOP has lost four congressional seats, one U.S. Senate seat, and control of the state house of representatives. It has lost elections for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state, not to mention the state’s presidential balloting last year. The party has also suffered the imprisonment of one of its congressmen (Robert Ney), the misdemeanor conviction of its governor (Robert Taft), and a scandal involving one of its major fundraisers (Tom Noe) that cost the state nearly $14 million.
The political dynamic has produced this unhappy statistic: In 2004, 40 percent of Ohio voters identified themselves as Republicans. In 2008, only 31 percent did.
In this context, it may not seem the best time for Voinovich, a well-liked former governor and mayor of Cleveland, to step down from the Senate seat he has held for two terms. Can it be defended, or has Ohio turned blue?
For their part, Ohio Republicans do not think the situation intractable. Three campaign consultants made the case to NRO this week that 2010 could be their year.
“The Democrats have come a long way based on Republican faults,” said Fritz Wenzel, a Republican consultant who operates out of Akron. “But they can’t really claim that their leadership in the state has made things better.” Ohio lost 40,000 jobs last year–the tail end of 200,000 jobs lost in the state since 2000. Democrats have also had their own scandal–last spring, Attorney General Marc Dann was forced to step down after admitting an affair with a subordinate in the context of a sexual-harassment case.
There is widespread agreement among Republicans that if anyone can keep Voinovich’s seat, it is former White House budget director and U.S. trade representative Rob Portman. Portman, who announced for the seat last week, is an extremely intelligent and wonkish politician short-suited in charisma. He is known both for his conservatism (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 89) and for his ability to work across the aisle–which won him praise from Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who called him “a gentleman” and “terribly, terribly easy to work with.”
The only polling available so far suggests that Portman has a good shot at winning. Portman, a former congressman from the Cincinnati area, polls one point ahead of Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D.), whom Republicans consider their strongest possible opponent. Portman, who remains unknown to 49 percent of those polled, bests two other potential Democratic candidates by eight points–Rep. Tim Ryan of Youngstown and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.
“What this poll shows is that it’s wide open,” said Dean Debnam of Public Policy Polling, the Democratic firm that conducted the poll. “These numbers won’t change until someone gets into the race and starts spending money. And anybody’s image can be dealt with or destroyed between now and 2010.”
Money is one thing Portman will not lack. He brings with him a federal campaign account that contained more than $1.5 million as of October 2008. (In the last cycle, the account took in nearly $100,000 in interest alone from five different banks, according to campaign-finance reports.) As a former member of the Bush administration, he also will have a lifeline to the president’s 2004 fundraising base.
Portman’s run for Senate is only part of the picture for next year’s election in Ohio. He may be accompanied by a statewide ticket with two other well-known names. Former Rep. John Kasich (R.), an anchorman for Fox News, is widely expected to run for governor. Former Sen. Mike DeWine (R.) is said to be interested in running for attorney general.
Such a ticket, despite its well-known names, is no guarantee of anything. Both Kasich and DeWine would face formidable incumbents, and both would have to make the case to voters that Ohio’s continued economic decline calls for a change in political leadership. DeWine, having been trounced by 12 points in his race against Sherrod Brown, is not a candidate whose electoral strengths are obvious. DeWine, who alienated conservatives prior to his 2006 defeat, would face the most difficult task against a well-liked and well-spoken Democratic attorney general, Richard Cordray.
“DeWine still faces the same problems among the conservative base of the Republican Party as he faced in 2006,” said Wenzel. “He still has the Gang of 14 to live down. John McCain’s performance here last year is a strike against DeWine, because the two are really cut from the same cloth, and we saw what McCain’s presence on the ticket did for Republican turnout in November.”
But if a Portman-Kasich-DeWine ticket is indeed strong and generates Republican excitement, then there could not be a better year for it than 2010. The stakes in next year’s Ohio election are particularly high, because the level of Republican turnout will determine not only who sits in statewide offices, but also who draws the lines for congressional and state legislative districts after the next Census.
Ohio could lose one or even two seats in Congress, which would give the state’s five-member Reapportionment Board wide latitude in re-drawing the lines in 2011. Currently, three Democrats and two Republicans have seats on that panel, which includes the governor, the secretary of state, the state auditor, and the leaders of the state House and Senate.
Republicans have a huge advantage in the Senate, and the state auditor, Mary Taylor (R.), is favored to win if she runs for re-election. On the other hand, all three of the Democrats’ spots on the Reapportionment Board could conceivably change hands–Democrats hold only a 53-46 edge in the House.
The only question is whether Republicans can win in the age of Obama.
– David Freddoso is a National Review Online staff reporter and author of The Case Against Barack Obama.