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Buckeye State Implosion for the GOP?

Like a Moses in reverse, Gov. Bob Taft (R) is on the verge of delivering Ohio Democrats from years of pain and suffering.

Taft’s second administration has proven to be nothing short of disastrous — so bad that it has resuscitated the Ohio Democratic Party, which has been on life support for the last dozen years.

[IMGCAP(1)]A Democrat last won the Buckeye State’s governorship in 1986, and the party hasn’t won a single statewide race (secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer, secretary of state, U.S. Senate or president) since 1996, when incumbent President Bill Clinton carried Ohio in his bid for re-election.

But now, it’s hard to miss the signs that 2006 should be a banner year for Ohio Democrats. Taft’s policy blunders and scandals — involving both the governor’s office and a number of individuals who served on his staff — could easily cost his party not only the governorship, but virtually every statewide office that will be on the ballot next year.

The biggest scandal in the state right now involves the Bureau of Workmen’s Compensation, which has lost millions of dollars. State officials who were charged with approving and monitoring the investments are on the hook, and it doesn’t help that a major GOP contributor and coin dealer is a central figure in the mess.

But Taft, who has talked a tough line on ethics, is also under attack for failing to disclose golf trips paid for by business interests. Violations of the state’s strict ethics law can result in a fine of $1,000 and six months in jail.

All three of the Republicans who are running for governor — Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Attorney General Jim Petro and state Auditor Betty Montgomery — have been in state government for more than a decade, and each is vulnerable to Democratic attacks that they’ve failed to protect taxpayers.

These ongoing scandals, which follow one last year that cost the Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives his job, have damaged Republicans badly in the state. Gov. Taft’s job approval has sunk to 19 percent in a Feldman Group poll conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and one GOP operative jokingly referred to current wagering “about whether and when it will get down to single digits.”

One recent private poll found only 22 percent of voters saying that the state was headed in the right direction, while a stunning 62 percent said that it was off on the “wrong track.”

“Voters are frustrated, angry and bitter,” one Ohio Democratic strategist told me recently, adding, “If we are ever going to win, this is the time.” Speaking on background, Republican insiders generally agree with that characterization and conclusion.

The Feldman Group poll, which first appeared on Daily Kos, a liberal Web site, showed the state’s two United States senators, Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, with surprisingly weak job ratings.

The state’s senior senator, DeWine, who is up for reelection next year, had 37 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable name identification — horrible numbers for a two-term Senator who was re-elected five years ago with almost 60 percent of the vote.

While some of DeWine’s problems are with his base, I’m willing to bet that he is suffering more from his party’s overall problems in the state. The Senator may not be the most dynamic member of Congress, but he ought to be well positioned for re-election at this stage of the game. Instead, he finds himself rising on the list of Democratic targets.

To make matters worse, the Taft nosedive threatens GOP control of the state’s U.S. House delegation, which now stands at 12 Republicans and just six Democrats. While little or no turnover is likely next year even with a small national Democratic wave, Ohio Democrats have proposed three ballot measures for this November, one of which would take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and force another round of redistricting before the 2008 elections.

Since Ohio’s current Congressional districts appear to maximize GOP strength, redrawn districts could easily give the Democrats another one to three House seats. While Reform Ohio Now purports to be a “non-partisan” effort for redistricting, campaign finance reform and modernizing the state’s election system, the list of groups supporting it reads like a who’s who of Democratic and liberal groups.

Reform Ohio Now is collecting signatures to put their proposals on the ballot later this year, and given the sentiments of voters in the state, the measures would have a real chance of passing. The group’s message on its Web site — “Corrupt politicians. Lost jobs. Ohio awash in scandal. It’s time for a change” — seems perfectly suited to the state’s current mood.

Republicans quite rightly point out that Democrats don’t yet have a credible candidate against DeWine, and the Senator’s campaign will surely stress his accomplishments and effectiveness in the Senate, allowing him to separate himself from Taft’s ineptness and the state Republican Party’s problems. But DeWine shouldn’t have to worry about reelection at all, and anything can happen if voters are angry.

Nobody is taking anything for granted now, especially since multiple scenarios are swirling around the state, including one involving a possible gubernatorial bid by former Republican Congressman John Kasich. Democrats must still mount effective, well-financed campaigns to win next November. But if they can’t capitalize on GOP problems now, they might as well disband as a party.

A Democratic takeover of the governorship and most statewide offices would be an ominous development for Republicans as they contemplate the 2008 Presidential election; who can forget that the 2004 election hinged on roughly 120,000 votes in the Buckeye State? But even if Democrats do win, they ought not give themselves too much credit. They would owe a big debt of gratitude to the outgoing governor and his cronies.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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