Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ohio U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

September 14, 2006
54 Days Until Election Day

Ohio U.S. Senate

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

Outlook: Leans Republican

If the U.S. Senate election between incumbent Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat challenger Congressman Sherrod Brown, were to be held today, it would likely be considered a tossup, if not a race that would favor Brown, as polls over the past two months have shown him holding a single digit lead over DeWine. However, it is my belief that that ideological distinctions, the trend of Republicans winning every single U.S. Senate or constitutional office election in the state since 1992, and the disparity of effectiveness in the ground games of the two political parties within the state, will ultimately propel DeWine to a narrow victory in a race that will turn out to be much closer than it ever should have been.

DeWine, who was first elected to the Senate in 1994, after having lost a competitive race for a Senate seat against legendary Senator John Glenn in 1992, has basically been a very popular and well-regarded public figure who usually toed a moderate line in Washington and was considered polite and hard-working. In 2000, DeWine was reelected with 60 percent of the vote. As the 2006 election cycle first approached, DeWine was considered a heavy favorite to win a third term.

However, the latter parts of 2005 and 2006 have seen Republicans take hits in popularity on the national level as often happens to a political party in the sixth year midterm cycle of a Presidential term. The problems for the GOP were particularly inflated in Ohio as the unpopular Governor Robert Taft was at the center of a scandal that had him pleading no contest to a misdemeanor. Additionally, many Republicans turned against Taft over tax and spending policies with they felt violated the platform upon which the Governor had twice been elected.

So, the atmosphere for an Ohio Republican in 2006 is clearly less than rosy, but having some lingering problems with the conservative base of his party has further hampered DeWine himself. The Senator is one of the Republicans most likely to part with the GOP on votes in Washington and for a variety of reasons, related to things such as gun rights and judicial confirmation politics, the mild-mannered DeWine has caused many conservatives to sour on his tenure in Washington as his job performance ratings and head to head polling results against his Democrat opponent have taken a hit. Some Republicans voted against DeWine in this year’s primary as a point of protest, but his re-nomination was never seriously in danger. However, a somewhat larger than normal amount of people who are responding they are undecided as to how they will vote for the Senate this year, indicates that those voters are most likely disaffected conservatives who will have to decide if they will not vote at all in the race, support DeWine’s Democrat opponent, or put their qualms aside in order to cast a supportive vote for the Republican. DeWine did receive some very good news several months back when a wealthy conservative candidate decided to end an Independent bid for his seat.

If DeWine hangs on to survive, he may owe that victory to some potential weaknesses of his Democrat opponent. As has been mentioned, the Democrat bench in Ohio is not considered very deep, considering the party has lost so many statewide elections over the past 15 years plus and do not have an office holder with a recent history of statewide success to run for this high office. Their strongest possible candidate is running for Governor, which left Democrats looking for a U.S. Senate contender.

Sherrod Brown actually did win statewide office as a fairly young candidate back in the 1980s, but he was defeated for reelection by Bob Taft, the man who is now the very unpopular Governor, who is a big factor in the woes of Buckeye State Republicans this year. Brown went on to be elected to the Congress in 1992, where he has served since, gathering a significantly liberal voting and a reputation as a fiery ally of organized labor and a staunch opponent of free trade policies. While Brown will score well with traditionally Democrat blue-collar parts of the state, it might be a severe challenge for him to connect on an ideological basis with other parts of the state. Simply put, he may just be too far to the left for many to feel truly comfortable voting for him on Election Day.

For a time, it looked like Democrats would be running a candidate with more centrist views on issues such as guns and someone who could have contrasted unfavorably among conservatives with DeWine. After Brown initially declined a Senate race, the party turned its eyes to Paul Hackett, an attorney and Iraq War veteran, who had managed to score an impressive showing while losing a Congressional special election in a very Republican leaning district. Hackett, who had built up a loyal following among liberal bloggers across the country was seen as being a potential good ideological fit for the district on some issues, while also being capable of benefiting with discontent over the situation in Iraq, but he also was a bit of a loose cannon who had made some very inflammatory political statements. Brown eventually decided he would run after all, and party insiders, particularly in Washington D.C., decided that the more politically seasoned Brown, would be less likely to lose the election with his mouth. In a bit of a soap opera like episode, Hackett claimed that Beltway sources intervened to dry up his campaign funding, and he bitterly exited the race earlier this year. At the time, Hackett was believed to have even offered to share his campaign’s opposition resource on former primary opponent Brown, in an apparent attempt to harm him. Since that time though, Hackett has recently endorsed Brown.

As DeWine and Brown prepare to enter the homestretch of their campaign, the somewhat odd political situation involves one candidate who is a good ideological fit for the state but who is weakened among more conservative voters while his opponent is well-liked by his party’s more liberal base, but might not be as good of a fit for the state at large. Somewhat surprisingly, recent polls have moved in Brown’s direction to the extent that he now holds about a six percent lead over DeWine on average, after having trailed by at times large margins in earlier polls. It is entirely possible that if Election Day is very bad for Republicans nationwide or especially within Ohio due to the local factors at play, Brown may very well unseat DeWine and that would be a tough loss to take for Republicans. If Democrats are to take control of the Senate, they are most certainly going to need to make that pickup happen though. In the meantime, DeWine has had several campaign events with the nationally popular Senator John McCain (whom DeWine was one of the few Senators to endorse for President in 2000) and seems to also be attempting to place some distance between himself and the Bush Administration at a time where such associations may prove to be politically harmful. The DeWine campaign has not been without gaffes however, as a television ad that focused on 9/11 was viewed as overkill and might have backfired. Brown probably did himself no favors either with a response ad in which he seemed to in part blame DeWine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for not preventing the terrorist attacks.

My opinion is that the ideological factors and the pool of currently undecided voters are ultimately going to work to DeWine’s advantage as conservative Republicans will swallow hard if necessary and vote to prevent the liberal Brown from winning the seat and potentially shifting the balance of power within the Senate. While there has been unhappiness with DeWine, and in fact, all three of the most prominently elected Republicans in the state, DeWine is still Pro-Life and regarded as a usual ally of evangelical voters, who have demonstrated an ability to turn out for elections in large numbers as of late.

While Brown will hammer away at the theme of change in Washington and Columbus, and try to score points among folks angry at the status quo in Washington, he also will have to address the fact that he has been serving on Capitol Hill for many years as well and has a lengthy voting record. DeWine and Republicans will try to define Brown, who can sometimes appear quite unkempt, as an out of the mainstream leftist. The NRSC has recently started an internet campaign in which a cartoon depiction of Brown has the Congressman in all sorts of 1960s, hippie-like settings. Some political hay may also be made about the fact that Brown has just this week spoken at an event for the very liberal organization The televised debates between the two candidates should be particularly interesting and the candidate who performs better stylistically may gain himself a big leg up in the election.

In the discussion of the Ohio Gubernatorial race and earlier here, it has been mentioned that the state party apparatus for Ohio Republicans is quite sophisticated, and with a proven record of getting results, even in spite of what looked like tough to overcome poll numbers. The race for Senate is currently regarded to be a good deal closer than the race for Governor in the state, and DeWine is not going to be as likely to be voted against as a message to Taft, since he is not running to succeed him, and has not served in Columbus with him over the past eight years. Furthermore, DeWine’s moderation and perception of being a non-polarizing figure could work to his advantage in this key swing state.

The race for Governor should be expected to tighten up greatly, and while that might not be enough to save the election for the GOP, the other very high-profile state contest should also see similar momentum in the same direction as conservatives may be motivated to vote against Brown and Democrats as much as they may have reservations about DeWine and Republicans. A current six-point deficit in the polls could very conceivably turn into about a six -point victory for DeWine in November.

DeWine campaign link:

2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 14 D, 8 R
Post-election Senate balance of power predicted thus far: 41 D, 48 R