Polls: Ohio a Top House Battleground

Posted September 22, 2008 at 7:05pm

Ohio, a must-win state for both candidates in the White House election, is also shaping up to be a major battleground on the Congressional front — and a prime opportunity for Democrats to pick up House seats.

According to new polls conducted exclusively for Roll Call by the automated firm SurveyUSA, Democrats are leading in two competitive open-seat elections in the Buckeye State, and their nominee is running almost neck-and-neck with Rep. Steve Chabot (R) in the 1st district. In the 2nd district, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) has an 8-point lead in her rematch with physician Victoria Wulsin (D), but she is running well behind the man at the top of the ticket, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in the suburban Cincinnati Republican stronghold.

Congressional Democrats have been bullish on their prospects in Ohio ever since the party swept all statewide offices on the ballot there in the 2006 elections. But even in that Democratic stampede, Republicans lost only one Congressional seat in Ohio and maintain an 11-7 edge in the makeup of the House delegation.

But the retirements this cycle of Reps. Deborah Pryce (R) and Ralph Regula (R) have presented Democrats with golden opportunities, and the Democratic nominees in both districts are ahead in the Roll Call polls.

In Pryce’s 15th district, Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy (D), who came within less than a point of ousting the incumbent in 2006, was leading the Republican nominee, state Sen. Steve Stivers, by 5 points. In the poll of 640 likely voters, taken for Roll Call and WCMH-TV in Columbus on Sept. 19-21, Kilroy had 47 percent of the vote, and Stivers had 42 percent. Don Eckhart, a conservative Independent candidate who is a favorite of anti-abortion groups, got 5 percent, and Libertarian Mark Noble took 3 percent.

The automated SurveyUSA poll had an error margin of 4 points.

Kilroy has picked up 2 points since SurveyUSA last tested the race about six weeks ago. She picked up 7 points among voters older than 50 and 5 points among white voters during that period.

SurveyUSA did not test McCain and his presidential rival, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the 15th district , but President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) essentially tied there in the 2004 White House election, and McCain and Obama had almost identical favorable to unfavorable ratings in the poll. McCain was viewed favorably by 45 percent of district’s voters and unfavorably by 41 percent. Obama’s favorable to unfavorable rating was 44 percent to 41 percent.

Only 32 percent of voters approved of the job Bush is doing, and Congress’ job approval rating was an abysmal 14 percent. But Pryce, who has held the Columbus-area district for eight terms and cruised to re-election until her 2006 battle with Kilroy, continues to be well regarded at home. She was viewed favorably by 47 percent of voters and unfavorably by 26 percent.

But 34 percent of the voters with a favorable opinion of the retiring incumbent plan to vote for Kilroy, not Stivers — and that could be a factor in the ultimate outcome.

The same phenomenon holds true in the Northeast Ohio 16th district, where Regula is retiring after 18 terms. Like Pryce, Regula was seen favorably by 47 percent of the voters (and unfavorably by 19 percent). But one-third of those who have a favorable opinion of the retiring Republican nevertheless plan to vote for state Sen. John Boccieri (D) over state Sen. Kirk Schuring (R) in the 16th district race.

Overall, Boccieri led Schuring 49 percent to 41 percent in the Roll Call poll. The poll of 635 likely voters was conducted Sept. 19-21 and had a 4-point error margin.

The 16th district gave Bush an 8-point victory over Kerry in 2004, but in the SurveyUSA poll, McCain led Obama by just 2 points, 48 percent to 46 percent — a possible sign of trouble for Republicans in the Buckeye State and a testament to Boccieri’s potential crossover appeal. In the poll, Boccieri, an Air Force reservist, carried moderates by a 2-1 margin and independents by a 4-3 margin.

Schuring has been blistering Boccieri for not moving into the Congressional district until recently (a portion of the Democrat’s Senate district overlaps with the House district), but the attacks could be backfiring to a degree. Schuring had a net favorability rating of 9 points, while Boccieri’s had a 19-point net favorability rating.

In the Cincinnati-area 1st district, Obama’s candidacy seems to be boosting the Democratic challenger, state Rep. Steve Driehaus. According to the Roll Call poll, Chabot, a seven-term Member, held a lead of 46 percent to 44 percent over Driehaus.

The poll of 645 likely voters was taken Sept. 19-21 and had a 3.9-point error margin.

Black voters, SurveyUSA pollsters believe, will determine the winner of the Congressional race.

The district has been very close in the past two presidential elections, with Bush getting 51 percent of the vote each time. But the district has a 28 percent black population, and if African-Americans make up 28 percent of the electorate this November, as SurveyUSA projects, Obama would get 52 percent of the vote to McCain’s 43 percent.

If black voters make up 26 percent of the electorate in November, Chabot’s lead over Driehaus would increase to 47 percent to 43 percent (and Obama’s lead would be 7 points). If African-American enthusiasm for Obama surges and they make up 30 percent of the electorate, Chabot and Driehaus would be deadlocked at 45 percent, and Obama would win the district by 11 points.

Earlier this year, Republican polls, using a somewhat smaller African-American turnout model, showed Chabot with a more robust lead.

Chabot has had tough re-election battles throughout his career, and the poll reinforces the fact that his crossover appeal has served him well in the past. While he held 90 percent of Republican voters in the poll, he picked off 17 percent of self-identified Democratic voters queried.

But Bush will do Chabot no favors in this race, as the poll found the outgoing president had a 29 percent job approval rating. Only 12 percent of voters in the 1st district approved of Congress’ job performance.

In the adjoining 2nd district, Schmidt held a 48 percent to 40 percent lead over Wulsin, the Democrat. But Schmidt, one of the most controversial Members who has yet to solidify her position in a fairly conservative district, ran several points behind McCain, who held a 58 percent to 39 percent lead over Obama in the district.

The poll of 627 likely voters was taken Sept. 19-21 and had a 3.9-point error margin.

Since winning a tight special election in 2005, Schmidt has withstood hard-fought primaries and general election races. This is the first time she is running in a presidential year, and the district’s natural Republican tendencies could help her. Bush’s job performance was better there than it was in the other three districts Roll Call surveyed, checking in at 39 percent.

A wildcard in the race is the presence of David Kirkorian, a conservative businessman running as an Independent. Ten percent of the voters polled by SurveyUSA said they would vote for a candidate other than Schmidt or Wulsin in the race, and the majority of those said illegal immigration — one of Kirkorian’s signature issues — rather than the economy was their top concern. Kirkorian was recently endorsed by the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police.