By Greg Giroux
Ohio’s close presidential contest in 2004 made it the last among the states to be decided, and Bush’s win by slightly more than 2 percentage points over Kerry gave him the 20 electoral votes that clinched his re-election.
The fact that no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning that state, more than any other, speaks to the importance – and the uncertainty – of winning Ohio. The last Democrat to win the presidency while losing Ohio was John F. Kennedy in 1960. Ohio is one of just four states that has backed the presidential election winner in each of the past 11 elections dating to 1964, in a bloc that also includes Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee.
Ohio’s exalted place in presidential politics helps explain why prominent officeholders from that state routinely are mentioned as potential vice-presidential running mates. Rob Portman, who served as Bush’s trade envoy and then as his budget director is mentioned as a possible No. 2 for McCain in no small part because he is an Ohioan who formerly represented a Cincinnati-area House district. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland was mentioned as a possible running mate choice for Obama until he removed his name from speculation.
Even with those developments, the long-term political track record suggests that the best Democrats can expect is for Ohio to maintain its traditional role as a bellwether state. That does not, of course, preclude an Obama win if he is running strongly in the national contest. But the outcome is likely to be close, whichever party ends up carrying the state.
Obama can expect a warm reception and plenty of votes from the state’s large urban centers of Cleveland and Columbus. Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, casts more votes than any other jurisdiction in the state, and in 2004 it backed Kerry by a 2-to-1 ratio and a margin of 227,000 votes (he fell short statewide by almost 119,000 votes). Columbus, the state capital and its most-populous city, dominates Franklin County, which Kerry won by 9 points.
Cincinnati, Ohio’s third most-populous city, leans Democratic, but the near-South quality of its environs, including its Hamilton County suburbs, typically create a Republican lean. Bush carried the county by 5 points.
Among mid-sized counties, Republicans run up huge margins in Butler, Warren and Clermont near Cincinnati and in Delaware County north of Columbus. The clincher for Bush was his strength in Ohio’s many conservative-leaning rural counties.
The presidential race in Ohio will dominate center stage in a year in which the state has no elections for governor or senator. But Ohio has drawn the close attention of House campaign strategists because the state is hosting competitive races in as many as seven districts, nearly all of which are being defended by Republicans.
Open seats tend to be more vulnerable than those in which incumbents are running, and the Republicans nationally are burdened with four-fifths of the open House seats. This problem is pronounced in Ohio, where three of 11 Republican House incumbents are retiring, and the Democrats appear to be at least even-money shots to win two of those seats.
In the district that takes in the western side of Columbus, some suburbs and rural areas to the west, Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy is seeking to succeed retiring eight-term Rep. Deborah Pryce after coming within 1 point of ousting the incumbent in 2006. Kilroy, a county commissioner in Columbus, got off to an early start in what she expected would be a rematch campaign against Pryce, who subsequently announced her retirement. Republicans are high on their own nominee, state Sen. Steve Stivers, an Iraq War veteran, though the Democrats have criticized his past work lobbying for the banking industry.
The retirement of 18-term Republican Ralph Regula – a longtime Appropriations Committee member – in a northeastern Ohio district that includes Canton has spawned a highly competitive race there for the first time in many years. The contestants are state senators, John Boccieri for the Democrats and Kirk Schuring for the Republicans. Boccieri is an Iraq War veteran. Schuring represents Canton, which with about 81,000 residents is the district’s most populous city.
The Republicans will again be defending some seats in which the Democratic offensive is no less vigorous than in 2006. Seven-term Republican Rep. Steve Chabot will be opposed by Democratic state Rep. Steve Driehaus in a southwestern Ohio district that includes the bulk of Democratic-leaning Cincinnati but also some Republican-leaning suburbs north and west of the city. Chabot is more often than not a top target of the Democrats, but he’s been politically resilient and won with 52 percent in 2006.
The remainder of Cincinnati, along with more conservative and Republican-leaning turf east of the city, is represented by Republican Jean Schmidt . But her brief, three-year hold on the district since succeeding Portman in a 2005 special election has been shaky. She can’t be considered much more than a slight favorite against Democratic physician Vic Wulsin, who is waging a rematch campaign after coming within 1 percentage point of unseating Schmidt in 2006. We rate both Cincinnati-area races as Leans Republican.
There are some other races that are more mildly competitive. In the northeastern district that stretches from suburbs east of Cleveland to the Pennsylvania border, Democrat Bill O’Neill, a former state appellate judge, is opposing seven-term Rep. Steve LaTourette, whom the Democrats didn’t vigorously challenge in 2006. CQ Politics rates this race as Republican Favored.
The Republicans are even more likely to retain retiring Republican Rep. David L. Hobson’s district, which takes in parts of south-central Ohio and a small part of Columbus. Republican state Sen. Steve Austria is opposed by Democratic lawyer Sharen Neuhardt.
Of the seven Democrats in Ohio’s U.S. House delegation, the only one who faces a remotely competitive race is freshman Zack Space, whose easy 2006 win in a culturally conservative east-central Ohio district was branded a fluke by Republicans – resulting, as it did in large part, from six-term Republican Rep. Bob Ney’s resignation and conviction on corruption charges related to his ties to influence peddler Jack Abramoff. But Space may be headed toward a second landslide win despite the district’s usual Republican orientation. The Republicans really struggled in candidate recruitment, and party nominee Fred Dailey, a former director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, has struggled to raise the money needed to vigorously contest a vast district with multiple media markets.