COLUMBUS, Ohio — The popularity of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama helped elect Democrats in two swing districts in this bellwether state last year, but both now face rematches in which President Obama may be more of a hindrance than a help.
Democratic Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy and Steve Driehaus benefited from the massive influx of new Democratic voters in their districts as well as from disenchantment with the Republican Party within the state.
Both freshmen are from districts once held firmly by Republicans but that had begun trending to the left prior to the 2008 election. Kilroy represents the 15th district in Columbus and Driehaus holds the 1st district seat in Cincinnati.
But the state that Obama visited over Labor Day weekend has suffered greatly since he won its support and 20 electoral votes in November. Obama’s approval rating in Ohio has dropped to 49 percent this summer, according to a Quinnipiac poll released in July, down from 62 percent in a May survey.
Unemployment rose to 11.2 percent in the Buckeye State in July, and polls over the summer nationwide have shown decreased confidence in Democratic policies.
As the bad news continues to mount for Democrats, the Republicans defeated by Kilroy and Driehaus in 2008 have become more confident that the tide will again shift in 2010, returning both seats to the GOP column.
“Elections are like a pendulum and I think in 2008 it swung as far out to the left as it could and it’s coming back,— said former state Sen. Steve Stivers (R), who lost to Kilroy by less than 1 point in a four-way race.
“I think what people want are checks and balances from their government because they see a government, especially in the House run by [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.], just outside the mainstream and they want checks and balances,— he said.
Stivers said the absence of the third-party candidates — who ran to the right of the abortion rights Republican and received a combined 8.8 percent of the vote — would also help him in the 2010 rematch.
Kilroy acknowledged that her fate is tied in part to Obama’s popularity. In the 2008 election, Obama outpolled Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) 54 to 45 percent in her Central Ohio district.
“I think to a certain extent every midterm is a referendum on how people feel the president is doing, so to that extent our electoral fortunes are tied to the country’s view about how the Obama administration is doing,— Kilroy told Roll Call in an interview last week.
“There still is a lot of all politics is local’ involved, too,— Kilroy said. “How well you do with constituent services, how people perceive you as their representative will also make a big difference.—
“I’m sure there will be a fight — but I’ve had electoral battles before. I’m not very surprised by that. I think I’ll be successful, I have a high level of confidence in that,— Kilroy said.
Stivers is not the only Ohio Republican who has been closely monitoring his former competitor in the months after a close election.
Seated in his law office on the west side of the district he used to represent, former Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) recited Driehaus’ voting record by heart and pointed out places where he believed Driehaus strayed from his campaign promise of fiscal responsibility.
“The first big vote was for the so-called economic stimulus package which has proved to be a pork-filled disaster, 10 percent or so has been spent and they are crediting that for the so-called turnaround of the economy,— Chabot said. “After that he voted for Obama’s budget which is just putting us on a glide path to disaster.—
Driehaus ousted Chabot from the seat he had held since the Republican revolution in 1994.
“It was the year of Obama,— Chabot said. “The huge enthusiasm and the unprecedented historic turnout in a district like mine made it virtually impossible to overcome.—
Obama won the district with 55 percent of the vote and Driehaus won with 52 percent.
Driehaus, who spent the August recess taking heat from voters upset with everything from the economy to the Democratic health care bill, said he leaves concerns about re-election to other people.
“I’m most worried about trying to do the best for the constituents that I represent now,— he said. “I honestly don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how what I’m doing is going to affect my election or anyone else’s elections.—
But he argued that if there is a political price to pay in the state of Ohio, Republicans could end up with the bill.
“I think quite frankly there may be a political price to pay because I think the Democrats are very much focused on policy and Republicans are very much focused on politics,— he said.
Former Federal Election Commission Chairman Bradley Smith — now a law professor at Ohio’s Capital University — said it is entirely possible that even moderate voter dissatisfaction with Obama’s and Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland’s policies could result in GOP gains in either district.
“Both [Democrats] will have the advantages of incumbency, but I think they could have a tough battle even if Obama and Strickland were more popular,— Smith said in an e-mail to Roll Call. “If their poll numbers stay down, it will take only a small shift in the vote — indeed, really no shift at all in Kilroy’s case, just a one-on-one race — for both to lose in 2010.—
He added, “If Obama’s unpopularity swings even 1000 votes (well under one-half of one percent) from Kilroy and Driehaus to Stivers and Chabot, it could be the difference.—
Ohio Democrats expressed confidence that the Democratic brand would be as strong as it was in 2008 but are taking no chances and will aggressively pursue those who registered as Democrats in 2008 to turn out again for the midterms.
“In Ohio, Democrats have the largest state party infrastructure of any state party in the country,— said Seth Bringman, communications director for the Ohio Democratic Party. “We have 1 million more registered Democrats than registered Republicans. We know who they are, where they live, and what their cell phone numbers are, and we will turn them out on Election Day.—
Bringman added that support for Obama’s policies would add to the incentive for Ohioans to send the two freshmen back to Congress.
Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, made it clear that if voters do not tie Kilroy or Driehaus to Obama’s policies, Republicans will happily remind them.
“Kilroy and Driehaus have both followed the partisan path laid out by Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama, and unfortunately it’s more of the same big government tax-and-spend solutions we always see from liberals in Congress,— he said.