Politics & Policy

The Economist: Portman Clear, Kasich ‘Tense,’ House Races Formative

The Economist has an article on Ohio out today which sums up the state of the current election contest in terms that will make both Republicans and Democrats nervous. Highlights follow:

Rob Portman looks set to win his Senate race easily, after the Democrats’ attempt to make his a competitive race fizzled out. Mr Portman ought to be an easy target; he served under George Bush junior as budget director and as trade representative, associations that should have made him toxic at a time of economic hardship; in fact, he is ahead by double digits.

A tenser battle is the one for governor. It pits a Democratic incumbent, Ted Strickland—who was elected in 2006 by a thumping 61%-37% and whose approval ratings were sky-high until the recession started to bite—against, of all people, a former Lehman banker. Yet John Kasich is leading by anything from one to 17 points, depending on which of September’s many Ohio polls you believe. Until recently, Mr Kasich looked as though he had it in the bag; but attacks on his Lehman record have tightened the race. The attacks are not exactly fair: Mr Kasich spent most of his life in politics, serving in the state’s Senate and as a congressman in Washington, and was never involved in exotic trading. But they seem to have hurt.

The challenger is the nearest thing to a tea-party candidate to be found in Ohio, where Republicans tend to be fiscal and social conservatives (Mr Kasich recently wrote a book on faith, and when in Congress played a big role in the budget and welfare reforms of the mid-1990s). His Croatian descent appeals to Ohio’s white working-classes, many of whom are of central European stock. Yet he has vulnerabilities, not least a stubborn insistence that he knows how to close a predicted $8 billion hole in the state budget while refusing to explain how. He has promised not to raise taxes, and to eliminate Ohio’s state income tax, which accounts for almost half of its revenues. Again, he has not said how. But Mr Strickland is vulnerable too; Ohio’s 10.1% unemployment rate is the ninth worst in the country and his promise in 2006 to fix the economy has fallen flat.

But in the end it is the House races that will matter the most: if the Republicans are to achieve their aim of taking back the chamber, they need 39 wins, so three or four from Ohio will be hugely valuable. One hopeful is Steve Stivers, running for a district that includes most of Columbus, the capital, and a big swathe of suburbia. A lean lieutenant-colonel in the National Guard who deployed to Iraq in 2005, Mr Stivers reckons that the deficit will be a big issue to a lot of his voters (he has a national debt clock on his website). The stimulus money “has done nothing at all for the private sector,” he reckons: Ohio’s biggest chunk of it comes in the form of $400m for a high-speed railway for which the studies have not yet even been done. And Mr Obama’s health reforms, he reckons, are strangling small businesses, which are already seeing premiums rise by 25% or more. Jobs, though, are the biggest concern. “Everyone in the state knows someone who has lost their job,” he says.

Out in the hotly-contested 16th congressional district, Jim Renacci has high hopes of unseating his rival, John Boccieri, who only took the seat for the Democrats in 2008. His motives are personal; he used to run a successful car dealership which was closed following the government takeover of General Motors last year: he calls the GM takeover “the darkest day in the history of capitalism”. He is hammering his opponent, as so many Republicans across the country are, for Democratic policy; Mr Boccieri’s vote in favour of cap-and-trade is extremely damaging in a state that depends on coal for almost all of its power.

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