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Black Turnout Likely to Decide Chabot’s Fate

For the past few months, Ohio state Rep. Steve Driehaus (D) has spent his Sunday mornings attending services at two or three black churches in the Cincinnati area.

After the service is over, the Democrat hands out campaign material that includes photos of him and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Driehaus, who is white, has also brought out Congressional Black Caucus members such as Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to campaign with him as he seeks to unseat Rep. Steve Chabot (R).

That’s because to win the historically conservative district, Democrats are hoping above-average black turnout due to excitement about Obama’s candidacy will push Driehaus over the finish line against Chabot. Almost 30 percent of the district’s residents are black.

Thus far there has been only anecdotal evidence in early voting patterns of higher black turnout than in previous cycles. Registered Democrats are, however, leading the district so far in early voting totals from the Hamilton County Board of Elections.

The board also has received a record 78,000 absentee ballots, including 31,000 from registered Democrats, 20,000 from registered Republicans and 27,000 from independents. More than 17,000 registered voters have cast their ballots early in Hamilton County, which makes up most of the 1st district.

Hamilton County does not have any demographic data from the ballots, but state Rep. Tyrone Yates (D) of Cincinnati said he’s seen a “tsunami of African-American voters” lined up to vote early in Ohio.

“The [line] of African-Americans stretched daily and continuously outside of the Board of Elections, all day long,” Yates said. “Ninety-five percent of those votes are going to go to Steve Driehaus.”

Yates said he expects black turnout in the district to increase 100 percent to 200 percent over 2006 because of Obama’s candidacy and the presidential election cycle. But it’s uncertain whether the same voters who line up for Obama will also vote for Driehaus.

“I’ve actually been surprised as I have spoken with voters who tell me that they have not skipped a single vote on a five-page ballot,” Yates said.

Nonetheless, it’s been difficult to gauge black turnout in Cincinnati in recent cycles. In 2006, Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Blackwell, who is black and from the area, won Hamilton County by 2,000 votes while losing the election statewide by a 25 points.

“I think that, while I could never quantify it for certain, but I think for African-Americans particularly here in Hamilton County, they found themselves quite conflicted,” Hamilton County Democratic Party Executive Director Caleb Faux said.

Also in Hamilton County in 2006, Chabot defeated City Councilman John Cranley (D) by about 6,000 votes. Political observers say Democrats were hesitant to push out the black vote in Cincinnati in 2006 with Blackwell on the ticket, a circumstance that has changed this cycle.

Faux said voter turnout in heavily black precincts almost doubles in presidential cycles — a much higher variation than in some of the predominantly white upper-class neighborhoods in the district.

According to sources in the district, Chabot has stronger relationships with some of the more socially conservative pastors at local black churches. When asked about his campaign’s outreach to the black community, Chabot spokeswoman Katie Fox said the Congressman has visited a handful of black churches in the district and, along with Driehaus, attended the Black Family Reunion parade earlier this year.

“Steve is pretty consistent with his campaign methods,” Fox wrote in an e-mail. “He specifically requests that the last week or two be left as open as possible (and with fundraisers and debates wrapped up, that is a lot more feasible now than it was two weeks ago) so he can canvass the district, from farmland to the urban communities.”

The Rev. Damon Lynch III, a pastor at New Prospect Baptist Church in Cincinnati, said Chabot has never stopped by one of his services in his 19 years at the church, but added that he is welcome anytime.

He said that because the black community tends to favor Democrats, Republican politicians don’t stop by his congregation that often. It’s common, however, for Democratic candidates — white or black — to stop by his church. Last Sunday, Lynch recognized Driehaus sitting in a pew.

This year, Lynch has also seen increased excitement about voting in his congregation.

“Probably because of the top of the Democratic ticket, there’s a little more excitement,” he said. “I tend to think we have a politically active congregation — they understand the value of their vote. But I think this year, Sen. Obama’s candidacy has garnered more excitement.”

But whether Driehaus can benefit from that excitement will be known only on Election Day.

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