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Ohio Special Election Has Turned Ugly

David Koehl got six pieces of candidate mail at his house Wednesday. The Seneca County Republican executive committee chairman said the mailings were from state Sen. Steve Buehrer (R) and state Rep. Bob Latta (R), the two men battling it out in the bloody contest to be the next Member of Congress from Ohio’s 5th district.

In the short eight-week journey to Tuesday’s special election, the campaigns took a negative turn in what might be the nastiest contest in the history of the district. The late Rep. Paul Gillmor (R) died on Sept. 5, leaving the seat open for the first time since Latta’s father retired from Congress in 1988. The winner of the primary Tuesday will be the overwhelming favorite in the Dec. 11 general election.

Most of the contents in Koehl’s mailbox covered similar terrain: Latta accused Buehrer of taking campaign cash from convicted Republican fundraiser Tom Noe, while Buehrer blasted Latta for voting for the state gas tax.

The trouble with that, Koehl said, is that they both accepted campaign funds from Noe — though later donated it to charity — and both voted for the gas tax. The only big difference between the candidates is the vote the national Club for Growth has seized upon: A 2003 tax increase initiated by unpopular former Gov. Bob Taft (R).

“It’s basically the only difference,” Koehl said. “My guess is they vote together 95 percent of the time.”

In fact, the candidates are so close that Latta’s media consultant, Rex Elsass, worked for Buehrer’s state Senate campaigns — and has the outtake footage to prove it. The Columbus Post-Dispatch reported that he used the unflattering footage of Buehrer to cut an ad for Latta.

Latta’s campaign has cut three TV ads during the campaign, while Buehrer has put two ads on the air.

The Club for Growth started the first of its three ads on Buehrer’s behalf on Oct. 5, and many political observers see that as the point when the campaigns started to become much more negative. The club endorsed Buehrer early on in the special election and though the state Senator’s campaign insists it has not coordinated with the club, the candidate has welcomed the group’s endorsement.

That support includes a recently released poll sponsored by the club that showed Buehrer 3 points ahead. The poll, which was conducted Oct. 27 and 28 by Basswood Research, showed Buehrer with 28 percent of the voted compared with Latta’s 25 percent among 300 likely Republican primary voters. The poll had a margin of error of 5.66 points.

Latta has a poll of his own showing his support at 40 percent, compared with Buehrer’s 21 percent. The Public Opinion Strategies poll taken Oct. 16-17 also surveyed 300 voters with the same margin of error.

“I think that Public Opinion Strategies is one of the best firms out there and we have no reason to believe that their numbers aren’t accurate,” Latta manager Matt Parker said. “At the same time Basswood showed them having a 3-point lead, our poll showed us having a 19-point lead.”

Parker also points out that Buehrer’s campaign has its own pollster, who has not released any numbers so far.

“If The Tarrance Group and the Buehrer campaign had poll numbers that look liked the Club for Growth’s numbers, then they would release it themselves,” Parker added.

Buehrer campaign manager Jim Banks contended that the club’s poll is consistent with the candidate’s polling. Banks said Buehrer’s poll numbers took off when Latta’s campaign put its first advertisement on the air — which he called the first negative ad of the race.

“I don’t think any district has the stomach for some of the things that happened in this campaign, such as that ad,” Banks said. “I think everyone would agree this is one of the nastiest campaigns we’ve ever been a part of.”

Ohio voters have shown before that they don’t always tolerate bloody primaries in a special election. The 2005 special election to replace former Rep. Rob Portman (R), who left office for a job in the Bush administration, had a particularly nasty Republican primary and a former state lawmaker came from behind to win: now-Rep. Jean Schmidt (R).

Ohio Republican Party Deputy Chairman Kevin DeWine even stepped in and sent a letter to Latta and Buehrer telling them to knock off the negative campaigning by a set time on the afternoon of Oct. 26.

“Over the past few weeks, the three of us have engaged in many conversations about how to clean up this race,” DeWine’s letter reads. “… It’s time to start acting like congressmen, or neither of you will ever be one.”

The deputy chairman asked each candidate to cease negative campaigning, including denouncing material produced by independent expenditures.

“The ads have really surprised a lot of people in the district,” said one Ohio Republican with knowledge of the district. “They’re just kind of taken aback at how nasty the campaign has turned out to be. And that can have lasting effects.”

In Gillmor’s 10 terms in Congress, he never went negative, according to the Ohio Republican. But Gillmor also never won a general election with less than 61 percent of the vote. In the 1988 open-seat race, the junior Latta was defeated by then-state Sen. Gillmor by 28 votes in the Republican primary.

“To some extent I think it’s an impact that there was no Gillmor candidate,” said one Ohio Republican close to district politics. “There was no one from either the Congressman’s staff or his family that came forward into the race.”

Gillmor’s wife, a former state Senator, declined to run and has not endorsed any candidate. Koehl, who was Gillmor’s home- county Republican chairman and knew the late Member for more than 40 years, is endorsing little-known teacher Mark Hollenbaugh (R) in the primary.

But whoever makes it past next Tuesday — Buehrer, Latta, or another candidate — will have a general election on Dec. 11. The 2004 and 2006 Democratic nominee Robin Weirauch will likely get the nomination again this time.

“If these two are willing to run these ads against other conservatives, I’d be afraid to see what kind of ads they’re willing to run against her,” an Ohio Republican said.