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Hobson’s Seat an Upset Special for Democrats?

Democrats shouldn’t have a chance in Ohio’s 7th district, a seat that Republicans have represented since the Great Depression.

President Bush carried the mostly rural district with 57 percent of the vote in 2004, while retiring Rep. David Hobson (R) has never received less than 61 percent of the vote over his nine terms in Congress. What’s more, Hobson’s protégé and preferred successor, state Sen. Steve Austria (R), is facing a novice candidate, attorney Sharen Neuhardt (D), in November.

However, some Buckeye State Democrats think this race could be a sleeper, given the party’s recent success in Ohio and the fact the seat is now open for the first time since 1990.

After all, now-Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) won the district by 2 points in 2006 over then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R), who used to represent the area when he was in the House and state Senate. And an influx of new voters as a result of the contested March presidential primary has given Democrats a registration edge in the district, according to data from Neuhardt’s campaign.

Still, Republicans remain optimistic.

“We’re very confident that Sen. Austria will continue to carry this district,” said Austria campaign manager Brad Mascho. “But we don’t take it for granted, and that’s why we have a very strong organization in place throughout the eight counties and that’s why we’ve been working hard across the district.”

But Austria raised eyebrows when he reported lackluster fundraising in the first quarter of this year, raising only $123,000 in those three months and finishing March with only $49,000 in cash on hand.

“I think we would expect a stronger [second] quarter,” Mascho said.

Austria spent a whopping $421,900 by the end of first quarter after competing in a four-way primary in early March, a contest he won with 55 percent of the vote. Neuhardt, who also had a primary, raised $173,000 in the first reporting quarter and had almost the same amount as Austria, $50,000, in cash on hand.

But in this district, which is nestled between Columbus and Dayton but extends almost all the way to Appalachia, Democrats might have an edge because of the national party’s financial advantage. The district is surprisingly expensive because it is split between the two cities’ media markets.

“It’s a pickup opportunity for Democrats that they’re not going to have to spend $4 million on this race,” Neuhardt said.

Neuhardt is a prominent attorney in the Dayton region, and the area is often prime territory for fundraising. Some political observers thought she might fund some of her campaign, though Neuhardt said she has no plans to donate any large sums.

But with national Democrats going into this fall with a major cash advantage, the party could make a real difference — if House Democratic leaders think the race is competitive.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not include the 7th district as one of its 37 targeted “Red to Blue” races, or even on its list of 20 “emerging” campaigns to watch. Nonetheless, DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer touted Neuhardt’s chances for November.

“Ohioans have had enough of out-of-touch politicians like Sen. Steve Austria, who represents the failed policies of President Bush and the disastrous Taft administration,” in Ohio, Rudominer said. “A successful businesswoman and community leader, Sharen Neuhardt is the kind of moderate Democrat who can win a district like this, and bring people together in Congress to end our dependence on foreign oil, create jobs and deliver change.”

Neuhardt, however, was hopeful that she would make either of the party’s lists in the near future.

The DCCC is “paying a lot of attention,” Neuhardt said. “I think that I’m going to get on that emerging races list and get on Red to Blue, hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Clark County Republican Party Chairman Dan Harkins, who lost to Austria in the GOP primary, said he sees the race as an unlikely pickup for Democrats, but not an impossible one.

“It’s probably the best opportunity this year because of the economy, but in terms of gerrymandering, it is a solid Republican district and Austria should win decisively,” Harkins said. “But if Austria does not pay close attention to the economic issues, he could see erosion from the Republican base.”

A memo released by Neuhardt’s polling firm, Cooper and Secrest Associates, showed Austria leading Neuhardt, 41 percent to 35 percent, with 24 percent undecided, in a test of 504 likely general election voters taken May 27-June 2. The poll, which had a margin of error of 4.4 points, also showed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) leading Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the presidential contest, 43 percent to 40 percent, in the district.

When asked whether he thought the race was competitive, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain pointed to a news report from last fall in which a potentially strong Democratic candidate, Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly, declined to run because he didn’t think the race was winnable for Democrats.

“When Democrats first suffered from their catastrophic recruitment failure here, their once-preferred candidate said that he didn’t see any way for a Democrat to win the seat,” Spain said. “We agree with Sheriff Kelly’s assessment wholeheartedly.”

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