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Ohio River: Not Ground Zero, but Still a Battleground

LEXINGTON, Ky. — What a difference a year makes.

Throughout the 2006 election cycle, the Ohio River Valley became the focal point for Democrats and Republicans battling for control of Congress. On Election Day, the region lived up to its advance billing, as Democratic challengers Jason Altmire (Pa.), Brad Ellsworth (Ind.) and John Yarmuth (Ky.) ousted incumbent Republicans, while Democrat Zack Space seized a Republican open seat in Ohio. These victories helped propel Democrats into a House majority for the first time in a dozen years.

But after a recent visit to four states — Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky — the clear conclusion is that where 2008 Congressional campaigns are concerned, the region is no longer the center of the political universe.

Even in Ohio, where a number of House seats are attracting attention from national party strategists, “I don’t sense the level of frenzy, and it was a frenzy in 2006, with money pouring in,” said Alan Johnson, a veteran political reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. “It’s still early, of course, but even at this time in 2005 it was already gearing up.”

Kentuckians, for starters, are being distracted from focusing on Congressional races because of a heated 2007 gubernatorial’s race in which scandal-tinged Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) is trying to salvage his political career. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) faces a tough re-election race next year, while in Ohio, the bulk of the attention is focused on the 2008 presidential race, which could hinge once again on how the Buckeye State votes.

The regional Senate race lineup is nothing like it was in 2006, when Pennsylvania and Ohio hosted marquee contests involving Republican incumbents who wound up losing. This time, the best the region can offer is the Democrats’ long-shot bid to topple Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Ultimately, though, the reason for the case of the blahs this year is that the House race lineup for the Ohio Valley is less competitive than it was in 2006. Fewer than half of the 13 House races in the Ohio River Valley that were competitive in 2006 are just as competitive, or more so, today. (Not included in this analysis because they are too far from the river are the seats being vacated by GOP Reps. Deborah Pryce, Ralph Regula, David Hobson and the late Paul Gillmor as well as the targeted Ohio seat held by GOP Rep. Steven LaTourette.)

Five of the 13 seats have seen a major drop-off in competitiveness since 2006 — the seats currently held by Democratic Reps. Ellsworth, Charlie Wilson (Ohio) and Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) and by Republican Reps. Geoff Davis (Ky.) and Ron Lewis (Ky.).

Two more seats have experienced a more modest, if still tangible, drop-off in competitiveness between the two cycles. These are the seats now held by Yarmuth and Space.

Meanwhile, four seats in the region should be roughly as competitive as they were in 2006 — those held by Democratic Reps. Altmire and Baron Hill (Ind.) and Republican Reps. Steve Chabot (Ohio) and Jean Schmidt (Ohio). And two seats are likely to see increased competitiveness in 2008 — those held by GOP Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Tim Murphy (Pa.).

Upper Midwest the New Valley

Ask national Democratic strategists what areas of the Midwest they are focusing on, and the answer is at least as likely to be Illinois, Michigan or Minnesota as it is any of the Ohio River states. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is hungrily eyeing seats held by retiring Republican Rep. Jerry Weller and Rep. Mark Kirk in Illinois, Michigan Republican Reps. Tim Walberg and Joe Knollenberg and Minnesota Republican Reps. Jim Ramstad and Michele Bachmann.

“I think there are hotter regions elsewhere” in 2008, said Bernadette Budde, the senior vice president of the Business Industry Political Action Committee and a longtime observer of the House playing field. “To go back to the same old places isn’t a political strategy.”

These days, Budde is particularly interested in the Mountain West, where a mix of libertarian- leaning Republicans, Democratic migrants and Hispanic voters are making once solidly Republican areas into more competitive territory. In the 2008 cycle alone, there are competitive Senate races in Colorado and New Mexico as well as a range of House seats up for grabs, such as those held by GOP Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), Marilyn Musgrave (Colo.), Jon Porter (Nev.) and Barbara Cubin (Wyo.).

None of this is to suggest that the Ohio River Valley will be a snoozer of a region in 2008.

“If you look at it race by race, in order for the Republicans to win back the House, we do not have to conquer new territory, we simply have to reclaim old territory,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said. “We see a number of opportunities for doing that” in the Ohio River Valley. He cited the seats held by Space, Ellsworth, Hill, Yarmuth and Mollohan as particularly ripe GOP targets.

However, it’s always harder for a party to oust incumbents, and all the more so if that party recently lost control of Congress and finds itself at a major funding disadvantage. That’s why several of the key races in the region, while still officially ranking as competitive for 2008, are no longer attracting the fevered national interest they were during the previous cycle.

Challenges for Challengers

In Ellsworth’s district, for instance, Republicans are talking up Indiana State University administrator Greg Goode. But Democrats say that Ellsworth, who trounced six-term Rep. John Hostettler (R) in 2006, fits the district’s conservative sensibility well. Voters “are content with their choice of Brad Ellsworth, and he will stabilize the ‘Bloody 8th’ for some time,” Democratic consultant Chris Sautter said, referring to the district’s reputation for brutal political skirmishing.

In Kentucky, Yarmuth, a former journalist without previous elective experience, has won kudos here for his growth in office. While other GOP candidates could materialize in his Democratic-leaning district, the leading candidate now is Erwin Roberts, whose close association with Fletcher could pose a problem.

“I like him, but I have a hard time seeing him do it next year,” said Ronnie Ellis, who covers politics for a chain of newspapers in Kentucky.

Mollohan was a major target for Republicans in 2006 because of ethical questions surrounding earmarks he had provided to his district. But while the cloud remains, he is stronger politically today given the implosion of his highly touted 2006 opponent, Del. Chris Wakim (R). Barring an indictment, Mollohan is a strong favorite for re-election, considering how thin the GOP bench is in the Mountain State. “If he gets indicted, we can win. If not, it will be an uphill struggle,” state Republican Chairman Doug McKinney acknowledged.

In Ohio, the marginal district that was a battleground last year between Wilson and Republican Chuck Blasdel is all but ceded until further notice to Wilson, who won in a rout.

The GOP probably will be on safer ground in protecting its incumbents. Even Democrats concede that Kentucky Republicans Davis and Lewis are going to be harder to touch in 2008 than they were in 2006. And by dint of having survived in 2006, such endangered Republicans as Chabot, Schmidt and Capito must be presumed to be at least slight favorites this time around.

“Democrats couldn’t defeat them in the most Democrat-friendly environment in several decades,” Spain said. “They couldn’t beat them in ’06, and they certainly won’t be able to beat them in ’08.”

New Targets for Democrats

Still, Democrats are encouraged by their likely candidates against Capito and Chabot — former state Sen. John Unger in West Virginia and state Rep. Steve Driehaus in Ohio — noting that they hail from relatively conservative portions of their districts and thus could cut into the incumbents’ base. Schmidt’s race is a total crapshoot, with both parties facing primaries between credible candidates.

The most notable race in 2008 may be in Murphy’s Pittsburgh-area district. Consultant Beth Hafer (D), daughter of a veteran Republican- turned-Democratic politician in Western Pennsylvania, has announced her intention to run, and several other Democrats also are in the race.

“It’s too early to test the temperatures for next year, but Murphy is in some trouble,” said William Green, a Pittsburgh-based Republican consultant. “He survived last year because the Democrats focused on [targeting then-Rep.] Melissa Hart and [then-Sen.] Rick Santorum. I think Tim will be the focus this cycle.”

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