When Barack Obama swept Ohio just a short two years ago, he brought with him a new crop of fresh-faced, allegedly reformist Democrats with an independent streak and a penchant for taking on the powers that be. Democrats openly celebrated, speculating as to whether Ohio might become another Illinois, while Gov. Ted Strickland, then one of the most popular governors in the country, looked nigh unbeatable in 2010. And with the announcement of the retirement of moderate Republican senator George Voinovich, liberals gleefully wondered if Ohio was poised only to get worse for the GOP.
It wasn’t. Flash forward to now, and not only is the once-popular Strickland locked in the electoral fight of his life, but Voinovich’s seat has been virtually locked up by former congressman Rob Portman, who now regularly posts leads of over 20 points against the aimless and saccharine Lee Fisher. But perhaps the most dramatic shift will come in Ohio’s House elections, where fully a third of the 18-seat Ohio delegation is either likely to flip, genuinely impossible to call, or vulnerable despite a persistent Democratic leaning, according to the model developed by Nate Silver. To make matters worse for the Democrats, two candidates who in any other year would be seen as untouchable — Marcy Kaptur in the 9th district and Dennis Kucinich in the 10th – have been spotted by national commentators as outside chances for a pickup. At best, Democrats will lose only two seats; at worst, they could lose as many as six, seven, or even eight.
The two races where Democrats can be said to have not only lost, but already surrendered, are Ohio’s 15th district, currently held by freshman Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, and its 1st district, currently held by freshman Democrat Steve Driehaus. In both races, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has either refused to spend money at all or spent only a pittance, with Hotline On Call reporting that Kilroy received absolutely no money from the DCCC, according to this Tuesday’s FEC filings, whereas Driehaus received the scant amount of $30,000.
It’s not difficult to see why these two Democrats should be the first to drop. Kilroy, whose left-wing past associations and insincere disavowals thereof never made her a particularly good fit for her purple district, is now locked in a tight race against her 2008 opponent, the moderately conservative Steve Stivers. With no party support behind her, Kilroy has tried squeezing support from her allies in the unions by running a deeply loyalist, class-warfare-oriented campaign that can only be described as being motivated by the fear that someone, somewhere, might be making more than the minimum wage. Having no record of party apostasy at all, even at points where it would be demanded of an intellectually consistent representative, all Kilroy has to run on is how icky Steve Stivers’s previous career as a lobbyist is. Polls show that it’s not convincing her constituency, as the most recent poll in the district gives Stivers a nine-point lead.
Driehaus, on the other hand, has tried to distance himself from his party — rhetorically, if not in substance. Unfortunately, his record belies this strategy, a fact with which Driehaus has not always coped gracefully. After the Susan B. Anthony List put up billboards and did a bus tour correctly pointing out that Driehaus had voted for a health-care bill that included public funding for abortions, Driehaus first channeled Nancy Pelosi by accusing the SBA List of spreading “a campaign of fear and misinformation” and then suing to get the billboards taken down, an attempt at muzzling inconvenient political speech so blatant that even the left-leaning ACLU has come out against it. None of Driehaus’s tactics have done anything to stop the bleeding, as most polls show him losing to his predecessor, Steve Chabot, by double digits.
Still, in an election cycle as right-leaning as that of 2010, Kilroy and Driehaus were always going to be seen as vulnerable, at the very least. Where the GOP’s advantage begins to show is in the races that it has managed to make competitive despite a history of victories by attractive Democratic representatives. The two examples that stick out most are sophomore incumbent Democrat Zack Space of the 18th district and veteran congressman Charlie Wilson of the 6th. Space, whose race is ranked as a toss-up by Nate Silver, was until recently seen as one “local factor” who could block the insurgent GOP tsunami, with the Washington Examiner’s Chris Carney described him as “charismatic, likable, and skilled at constituent services.” It is perhaps for this reason that the genuine blue-dog Space (who is fond of reminding constituents that he has the backing of the National Rifle Association and voted against Obamacare) is considered to be first in the GOP’s crosshairs where Ohio is concerned. That Space is vulnerable at all is a testament to GOP persistence, but how the race will end up is anyone’s guess, as polling has been scant, with only one poll (done by a Republican-leaning firm) showing the race a dead heat.
Charlie Wilson, meanwhile, was seen as safe until recent revelations of his history of spousal abuse and increased support from the national GOP for his opponent, Bill Johnson (who holds one of the coveted spots on the GOP’s “Young Guns” list) forced his race into what was, for Wilson, an unwanted spotlight. Johnson, whose aides told NRO back in September that his strategy was to run as the “generic Republican” whom anti-Wilson voters could support with minimal knowledge of his record, is an attractive candidate on his own: He has a record of successful grassroots activism for lower taxes, and served over 20 years in the Air Force. Nate Silver currently ranks the race as “leans Democratic,” but polls are inconclusive, given the deliberately low-profile strategy Johnson has been using.
But perhaps the biggest wild card of this year’s election cycle in Ohio is the infamously acrimonious race in the 16th district, where freshman Democrat John Boccieri, the first Democrat to represent the district in half a century, is in the fight of his life against successful local businessman Jim Renacci. While Renacci led Boccieri by double digits as recently as August, and is still given a 79 percent chance of winning by Nate Silver, recent polls have shown the race tightening down to a three-point lead for Renacci. Whether this is the result of Boccieri’s native likability or just raw voter cynicism in the face of the heavily negative campaign run by both candidates is anyone’s guess. Given the national anti-incumbent fever, and the lack of time before the election, Renacci’s slim advantage should not be discounted, but no more should Boccieri’s chance to upset him.
The final race worth watching is the one between incumbent freshman Betty Sutton and used-car salesman Tom Ganley in Ohio’s 13th district. While Ganley was recently hit with a nasty (and dubiously substantiated) October surprise in the form of a sexual-harassment lawsuit, and recently had to shift his money from broadcast advertising to radio, print, and direct mail, sources close to the campaign told NRO that Sutton is more vulnerable than such news would indicate. The incumbent congressomwan relies disproportionately on outside help from liberal interest groups such as EMILY’s List and the Service Employees International Union, and — with the DCCC having all but withdrawn from the race due to complacency — the chances for a dark-horse victory by Ganley should not be underestimated. Ganley’s campaign manager told NRO, “We have a very good chance to win this race because we’ve been smarter with our dollars. Rather than blasting them on TV, we’ve been very sophisticated when it comes to microtargeting. We did a full microtargeting workup of the entire district, so we know what voters [to target] and we’re going after those voters in a very calculated and surgical way.”
One thing’s for sure: After this election cycle, liberals will no longer be able to see Ohio as the new Illinois.
– Mytheos Holt writes about Ohio at National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.