Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Ohio Governor Race

Race of the Day

September 13, 2006
55 Days Until Election Day

Ohio Governor

Status: Republican Open
2004 Presidential Result: Red State (Midwest)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

Democrats have not won a single election in the Buckeye State for U.S. Senate or any of the constitutional offices since 1992. It has been even longer since a non-incumbent of that party has won an election. However, after 16 years of Republican Governors, and with the current Republican incumbent about as popular in the state as the Michigan Wolverines, Democrats feel that this is their year to break to take advantage of the landscape and end their futility streak. It is still going to be a challenge for them to win the Governorship, but the way things are currently looking, their optimism is probably well grounded.

After the 2004 elections, it looked like Republicans would be in a strong position to keep the office, despite the building unpopularity of GOP Governor Robert Taft. The three likely Republican contenders for the slot were all popular constitutional officers who had been elected to statewide office and the most recognizable Democrat who seemed to want to make the race was talk-show host Jerry Springer.

However, as 2005 progressed, Taft’s popularity continued to tank further, due in large part to a loss of support among his fellow Republicans due to tax and spending policies as well as a serious scandal in Columbus that eventually had the sitting Governor having to undergo the humiliation of pleading no contest to a misdemeanor. There was talk that Taft, who won reelection fairly easily back in 2002, would be forced to step aside as Governor, but he has stubbornly stuck it out. One could wonder if the fortunes of the state GOP would be now if Taft had left the political scene several months ago.

Democrat spirits were buoyed by the somewhat surprising candidacy announcement of the candidate who has to probably be considered the strongest possible contender for the Governorship, Congressman Ted Strickland. Although Strickland lost four out of his first five races for Congress, including a 1994 reelection campaign, he had become entrenched in a very politically competitive district. Despite a pretty liberal overall voting record, Strickland has at times parted with others in his party on issues such as guns, and the fact that Strickland is a former minister, is said to give him credence with some conservatives. Once Strickland entered the race for Governor, the field was basically cleared of any serious contenders, and his path to the nomination was fairly easy.

The same could not be said for the Republican nominee. While Secretary of State Ken Blackwell won a solid primary victory this past spring over a fellow constitutional officer, the primary was quite expensive and at times personal. The Republican nominee, a prominent African-American conservative, won the primary with strong support among economic and social conservatives, but his ideological positioning may have made it more difficult for him to fully unite moderate Republicans behind him.

Blackwell received much national attention in the run up to and the aftermath of Ohio’s closely contested Presidential election in 2004. Many Democrats seem to have a great deal of animosity towards Blackwell, who was vocally supportive of the Bush-Cheney ticket, of somehow using his office to manipulate the process for Republicans, although no credible allegation of wrongdoing has ever surfaced. Blackwell has been elected statewide in Ohio in the past with very stronger than normal support for a Republican among the African-American community and he also helped the GOP Presidential ticket exceed expectations in that regard in 2004. Due to those factors, national Republicans have been very enthusiastic about Blackwell and his prospects to become the nation’s first black Republican Governor and perhaps because of that prospect, some Democrats have been just as focused in trying to defeat him.

Polls taken after the spring primaries in Ohio show Strickland with a very healthy lead of about 20 points. Republicans keep hoping that polls were eventually narrow and a much closer race will take shape. That probably will happen, but the fact that progress for Blackwell seems to be so slow coming indicates that time to dramatically change the race may be starting to wear out. For a variety of factors, this race should be considered far from over, but it does look like it is clearly Strickland’s race to lose. One exception to the lengthy list of polls showing Strickland up by double digits is the online survey by pollster John Zogby. That poll, which uses unproven methods that are often dismissed by Democrats and Republicans alike have consistently shown a much closer race, and with Blackwell well within striking distance, and his campaign has been willing to cite it as an example of supposed good news.

As much talk as there is about the unpopularity of Republicans in Washington, the biggest problem for Blackwell, and probably all Republicans in Ohio this year, might actually have more to do with Governor Taft, who has about a 17 % job approval rating, and his administration. The well may be so poisoned for any Republican who wants to succeed him as Governor that the desire for change that is often seen in Gubernatorial races in all sorts of states may be too much to overcome.

If any Republican were able to successfully portray himself as the “anti-Taft” though, it would have to be Blackwell. He had planned to run for Governor back in 1998, but deferred to Taft, under some pressure from party insiders who considered it Taft’s “turn.” In recent years, Blackwell has been very critical of the policies and alleged corruption within the Governor’s Administration, claiming that those policies run counter to the basic tenants of Republicanism and are a large part of the reason why Taft has become so unpopular. Some analysts have claimed that Blackwell has the ability to show how different he is philosophically from Taft on key issues, but still in line with the Republican principles that have propelled the party to so many victories in Ohio in recent years, thus making him the most effective agent of reform. That task could prove to be easier said than done though and Blackwell’s campaign has to hope that people are not really tuning in to the campaign until a few weeks or less before Election Day and that they can make the sale at that time. If Blackwell cannot manage to escape the negative shadow of Taft in the context of a Gubernatorial campaign, no other Republican would have been able to this year. What is certain though is that Blackwell is polarizing figures that large chunks of voters tend to either love or hate. He definitely will have a core base of supporters who will be eager to work on his behalf, but Democrats will also be motivated to defeat him.

As they look at the polling data and the conventional wisdom on this race, Democrats certainly have the right to be confident, but they will need to avoid cockiness. As mentioned, Democrats have just not been able to win in Ohio in some time, and if they are to win the top state office this year, they will have to overcome the efforts of an extremely sophisticated and well-organized GOP political apparatus, which is known for effectively getting out the vote and is considered far superior to the state’s Democrat organization when it comes to getting out the vote on Election Day. The polls look good for Democrats now, but they would be wise to remember that around this time in 2005, several statewide ballot initiative positions backed by Democrats looked like they would be easier winners on the ballot box, but when the voting occurred, they all lost by significant margins, due in no small part to the effective GOP state operation.

If Blackwell is to get back in the game, he is probably going to need to go very negative against Strickland and try to turn the contest in a classic liberal vs. conservative battle on such wedge issues as abortion and same sex marriage. There is a long list of Congressional votes cast by Strickland that could prove to be problematic for him and it can be expected that Blackwell, (who like Strickland is very well-financed at this point) will feature prominently in his campaign advertisements. Strickland’s strategy will be to try to stay above the fray as much as possible and appear statesman like, while continuing to press the theme of change in Columbus.

As some may know, I had been insisting online for quite some time that Blackwell would eventually find a way to win it in the end. I still think that is possible and I obviously very much hope for that to be the case. However, after the most recent batch of polling from Gallup and Rasmussen Reports, it does look like a comeback victory may be pretty hard to accomplish. I do think the race will tighten up a great deal as autumn progresses, and that the history of the Ohio GOP outdoing the Ohio Democrats on Election Day cannot be ignored. However at this point, it looks like a Blackwell victory would have to rate among one of the most impressive political comebacks in recent memory.

Whoever is elected Governor of this heavily populated, key midwestern battle ground state will immediately jump to the front of everyone’s list as a likely future contender for a spot on the national ticket.

Blackwell campaign link:

2006 Governor races predicted thus far: 9 D, 16 R
Post-election total of Governors predicted thus far: 17 D, 22 R