- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

One of an occasional series

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Any other year, Rep. Deborah Pryce would have wrapped up her race for re-election months ago.

The fourth-ranking House Republican and self-proclaimed “moderate,” Mrs. Pryce has cruised to victory in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District the past six times with at least 60 percent of the vote, in a dead-heat district where President Bush and Sen. John Kerry just about split the vote in 2004.

But this year, with Mr. Bush sliding into disastrous levels in the polls and Republicans in Ohio imploding amid corruption charges and unpopular policies, she is struggling against a boilerplate Democratic candidate whose attacks are similar to those being used across the nation by Democratic challengers.

“This is a referendum on the policies of this current administration,” says that candidate — Mary Jo Kilroy, a Franklin County commissioner from the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Defining moment

The battle for control of the U.S. House runs right through the Midwest, with Democrats making a major bid for two or three Republican-held House seats each in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. That means the fate of Republicans’ House majority should be clear soon after 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 7, the closing time for Ohio’s polls, the latest of those three states.

It promises to be a watershed election for Ohio. If Democrats do well, it means this state is the ultimate swing state. But the elections will cement Ohio’s Republican credentials if the Democrats fail to capture any of the major prizes.

Every statewide constitutional office here is held by Republicans as are both U.S. Senate seats and 12 of the 18 U.S. House seats. They include national party leaders Mrs. Pryce, the House Republican Conference chairman, and House Majority Leader John A. Boehner. Republicans also have sizable majorities in both state legislative chambers.

This year, though, Democrats expect major victories up and down the Ohio ballot, leading off with Ted Strickland, a Democratic congressman who is on the verge of trouncing Republican Ken Blackwell in the governor’s race.

Democrat Sherrod Brown also holds a lead in the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine — one of the seven races likely to determine control of the Senate.

Mr. Brown has attacked the Republican for lost jobs in the state and for his support of the Iraq war in Washington. Mr. DeWine argues that the Democrat has little to show for his seven terms in Congress. A Mason-Dixon poll released Tuesday showed Mr. Brown with a lead of eight percentage points.

All politics is local

Unlike other parts of the country, Republicans’ problems in Ohio are not primarily the national mood or antipathy toward Mr. Bush, who polls above 40 percent in approval ratings, higher than his national average.

Instead, it is local — a mixture of a faltering economy, state Republicans who pushed through huge tax increases, a school system that few voters seem pleased with, and Bob Taft, the departing Republican governor, who pleaded no contest last year to violating state ethics laws.

Adding to that, Rep. Bob Ney, a Republican, announced two months ago that he wouldn’t seek re-election, forcing Republicans to scramble to fill his slot on the ballot. Then, two weeks ago, Ney pleaded guilty to corruption charges stemming from the investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“It’s a combination of the state and the national mood. We have had our troubles here in Ohio — our governor’s numbers are very low, we’ve had our own set of scandals, and the same is true in Washington, so you have a fairly soured public and Rahm Emanuel just saw opportunity here,” Mrs. Pryce said, referring to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman.

Still, those opportunities are less than they could have been.

Democrats had hoped to capture up to eight House seats here, but that list has been reduced. There are now three solid Democratic opportunities — Mrs. Pryce’s 15th district, Ney’s 18th district and the 2nd Congressional District, where first-term Rep. Jean Schmidt won a special election last year.

They also have a longer shot at Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican from Cincinnati.

Guilt by association

The race for Ney’s seat is emblematic of Republican challenges.

The Democratic candidate, Zack Space, is running a clean-government campaign against national and state Republican leaders.

That worked well when his opponent was Ney, and he is trying to adapt it to new Republican candidate Joy Padgett, accusing her of having ties to corrupt figures.

“From convicted Ohio Governor Bob Taft, to disgraced Congressman Bob Ney, to House Speaker Dennis Hastert now under fire for ‘Foleygate’ — or most recently Karl Rove, who has agreed to host a $5,000 per PAC fundraiser in Washington D.C. — Padgett refuses to break her ties to corruption,” Mr. Space said on the day Ney pleaded guilty.

This district is the most reliably Republican in the state, having delivered 57 percent of its vote in 2004 to Mr. Bush, and in any other year, Mrs. Padgett would have a built-in advantage over Mr. Space.

But Mrs. Padgett, a state senator, only started running after winning a special primary election after Ney gave up his bid in August. Her red campaign yard signs — which repeat her last name three times — seem to capture her biggest challenge: building up name recognition.

She said she doesn’t see voters penalizing her for Mr. Taft or Mr. Bush, but stresses that she has voted against Mr. Taft in the legislature and will be willing to buck Mr. Bush in Congress.

“The president is president, he’s got his role. I’m not in his administration. I will be in Congress,” she told reporters after accepting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsement two weeks ago.

The bigger issues

As for Ney, it’s not clear how much of a drag he will be, especially because the charges play differently on the ground in Ohio than they do among the politicos in Washington.

Dr. John Antalis, an ophthalmologist in Cambridge who usually all but ignores politics, said he would probably have voted for Ney because someone he trusts vouches for Ney.

But Dr. Antalis, watching his son’s football practice one afternoon, said he’s so angry about the Iraq war that he won’t support any Republicans who support Mr. Bush.

“I’m going to vote against Republicans until there’s a change in the House, just because of that one issue,” he said.

Democrats have several ace cards this year, including a statewide ballot question on raising the minimum wage that will energize key labor voters.

And Democrats here are still energized by the 2004 presidential election results, which many think were tinkered with by Mr. Blackwell, the secretary of state.

Ohio became the pivotal state in those elections, when Democratic candidate Mr. Kerry refused to concede the race on election night because of the slim margin here and rumors of voting irregularities. Democrats’ fury settled on Mr. Blackwell, one of the nation’s most prominent black Republicans, who they argue worked overtime to complicate voting in 2004.

Getting personal

In Mrs. Pryce’s district, though, the race is just a verbal slug-fest of names and labels.

The most recent barb was Mrs. Kilroy’s ads, run on Christian radio, accusing Mrs. Pryce of failing to do enough to investigate former Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned Sept. 29 amid charges that he had made inappropriate advances to teenagers who had been in the House page program.

Mrs. Pryce, who has called Mr. Foley a friend, said the charges did hurt her somewhat.

“We had a week of distraction. In close campaigns, you never need that. We had polling that showed it was significant,” she said, although she said the debate two weeks ago helped to refocus the campaign.

Mrs. Kilroy’s most consistent attack has been that Mrs. Pryce is “a right-wing apologist, and she’s been serving a right-wing agenda” by supporting national Republicans on the war in Iraq, spending, tax cuts and Social Security reform.

For her part, Mrs. Pryce may be the only candidate anywhere — Republican or Democrat — eager to tie herself to Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who is reportedly under investigation for corruption.

Mrs. Pryce touted her work with him on health care legislation as an example of how she has bridged partisan divides.

She also puts herself in the camp of Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who lost his party’s primary this year and is running as an independent, and tries to turn that back on Mrs. Kilroy.

“Her wing of her party drove him out, threw him out,” she said.

The two women clearly don’t care much for each other, and the tone of the race is harsh. Mrs. Pryce even felt the need to apologize to her mother when the two met at the Columbus Metropolitan Club debate, which aired on WOSU radio and television.

“My mother’s mad at me, but I had no choice,” she said, adding that she had to respond in kind after liberal interest groups sponsored attack ads and phone-bank calls.

“As soon as we recover, we’ll be back on the positive,” she said, prompting Mrs. Kilroy to note that Mrs. Pryce is “going to have negative ads for a long time, then.”

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