- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ohio, a traditional bellwether state, will take center stage once again to gauge how the two major parties will fare in 2010, a year Republicans are hoping to make gains in statehouses and congressional seats across the country.

Republicans are looking to defeat Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland with the help of former congressman and Fox News host John Kasich, and win an edge in congressional redistricting in the process.

The Republicans are also playing defense in the state, however, hoping to hold onto the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. George Voinovich — a moderate Republican representing a state that broke for President Barack Obama last year.

“When you look at the bigger picture, this is going to be the ultimate litmus test of whether George W. Bush is still a campaign issue for Democrats,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report.

Gov. Strickland and fellow Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown rode a wave of national discontent with the Bush administration in 2006 to knock off two Republican incumbents.

But the national tide — shown in President Obama’s slipping public approval and stoked by a still-struggling state economy — appears to be trending away from the broad advantage Democrats enjoyed in the last two election cycles.

How Rob Portman, a former congressman and head of President George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget, fares in his bid to succeed Mr. Voinovich should give a clear indication whether Democrats can still win races by tying candidates to the previous administration, Ms. Duffy said.

Mr. Portman, who also served in Mr. Bush’s Cabinet as chief trade negotiator, is facing a potentially divisive primary challenge from Ohio auto dealer Tom Ganley. Two Democrats, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, have already launched their campaigns for the Democratic nod in the race.

Both the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report list the Senate contest as a tossup.

A Sept. 16 Quinnipiac University poll found that Mr. Obama’s popularity has rebounded from a 49 percent favorability rating in July to 53 percent in early September. Mr. Fisher leads Ms. Brunner and Mr. Portman is ahead of Mr. Ganley in their respective primary battles, but the percentage of undecideds in both parties is above 50 percent.

Both Democrats holds early leads in head-to-head matchups with their Republican rivals, but the poll notes that the election is still far off. Pollster Peter Brown said the results were slightly skewed because of when it was conducted.

“Perhaps it’s because the poll was taken immediately after the president’s nationally televised prime time speech to Congress, but Democratic fortunes in Ohio have improved slightly across the board,” Mr. Brown said.

The Ohio House delegation is almost evenly split, with 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, but the majority of those seats are expected to be safe for the incumbents. The Republicans could even the number completely by picking off Democrat Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, the only House incumbent seen now to be facing a tough race.

Democrats are rated as having a slightly better chance of holding onto the governor’s mansion, but still face a strong challenge to an increasingly unpopular incumbent, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

“Strickland is facing some of the same challenges his colleagues across the country are. People are still nervous about the economy and looking to the governor to make some tough decisions,” Mr. Gonzales said. “Strickland’s poll numbers are not spectacular. We’re still a year out from the election, we’ll have to see what the economy does.”

While the immediate political prize may be holding control of the executive branch for four years, the bigger trophy could be controlling the redistricting process following the 2010 census.

A five-member panel comprising the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and one Republican and one Democrat from the legislature draws the boundaries for the state and congressional districts. The stakes loom even larger as Ohio is currently projected to lose two House seats after the 2010 Census is completed.

That redistricting process has benefited Republicans in the past, particularly in the state Senate where Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 2-1 margin, said Paul Beck, political science professor at Ohio State University.

Ms. Brunner’s decision to forgo re-election as secretary of state to run for the Senate opens a valuable seat on the redistricting board for Republicans.

“That’s why the stakes are so high in 2010,” Mr. Beck said.

Over the longer term, Ohio Republicans are looking to state Auditor Mary Taylor as one of the party’s rising stars over the next few years.

Ms. Taylor was the only Republican to win office statewide in 2006 and flirted with a run for the Senate before opting to run for re-election in 2010.

The “timing was not right” for a Senate run next year, said Mrs. Taylor, who is keeping her options open including a possible run against Sen. Brown in 2012.

“It’s certainly something I would consider,” she said. “There’s a lot that needs to happen between now and 2012, not the least of which is winning my next election, and I need to continue to do the job I was elected to do.”

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