(Updated 4:15 p.m. EST, Tuesday, Nov. 6)
COLUMBUS, Ohio - After 16 years in which the Republican Party had Ohio on a string, Democrats are resurgent in this politically crucial state, led by a Democratic governor who's flying high.
Gov. Ted Strickland, a once-obscure congressman from Appalachia, cruised to victory in a Democratic sweep of Ohio in 2006. With Republicans tarnished by a statehouse financial scandal known as "Coingate," the Democrats won every statewide office except for state auditor and supreme court justice, including the U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Mike DeWine (R).
Today, with his first legislative session under his belt, Strickland is riding high in popularity and poised to be an asset in a state destined to be pivotal - again - in the presidential race.
Facing a GOP-controlled Legislature, Strickland won nearly unanimous passage of a two-year, $52.3 billion package in what many called the smoothest budget process in years. It ended with a spontaneous hug between the governor and Republican Speaker Jon Husted.
| Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Cal l newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Cal l, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report .
Despite a few hiccups - such as some poorly safeguarded personal data in his administration and his comment that Iraqi refugees weren't welcome in his state - Strickland chalked up a 58 percent approval rating in a September Quinnipiac University poll. And even Ohio Republicans love the job he's doing: They approved of him, 54 percent to 19 percent.
"The halo effect with this guy is unbelievable," said Joseph Savarise, an Ohio-based vice president for the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, a national pro-business group.
Strickland's halo is giving the state Democratic Party a major boost, psychological and practical, for both state and national races in 2008.
The simple fact that Democrats control the governorship and other key statewide positions dramatically improves the party's fund-raising potential. Party officials say this money will be parlayed into such efforts as "microtargeting" voters potentially open to the Democratic message. It is one of the tactics the GOP used to great effect in recent years, when Ohio's political infrastructure became the linchpin of both presidential victories by George W. Bush.
The presidential election is a key focus for the governor, he said in an interview. "I, as governor, and the Democratic Party have a responsibility to help make sure a Democrat is elected president," said Strickland, who has remained neutral for the primaries.
State Democratic chairman Chris Redfern is leveraging his party's newfound financial resources and brimming morale into an "88-county strategy" that seeks to establish the party even in deeply red regions.
And there are lots of those. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 carried a mere 16 of 88 Ohio counties. In 2006, Strickland won 72, while victorious 2006 U.S. Senate candidate Sherrod Brown (D) triumphed in 44.
Such success, unthinkable to Democrats as recently as two years ago, has kicked the party's candidate recruitment efforts into gear. "The Democrats are developing a bench," said Paul Kostyu, the Columbus bureau chief for the GateHouse newspaper chain. "It's just remarkable the quality of candidates they've come up with" for 2008.
GOP strategist Mark Weaver concedes: "We used to be the Harlem Globetrotters and they (Ohio Democrats) were the Washington Generals. Now it is much more even."
Strickland's approach to governing - moderate in ideology and amiable in personality - may be smart for Democrats as they go into the presidential election year. It could also aid a takeover attempt of the state House in 2008, for which they need only four seats.
This past year, Republicans found themselves hard-pressed to oppose legislation from Strickland that contained ideas they had long championed. Strickland's budget increased spending on elementary and secondary education, proposed freezing college tuitions for one year while boosting student grant money, and cut property taxes for elderly and disabled homeowners. The budget also played against Democratic stereotypes by keeping taxes in check. (In the final bill, the Legislature and the governor agreed to a two-year college tuition freeze).
Strickland describes what he sees as "an unbreakable link between educational achievement and economic growth. Our budget reflected that belief."
Dave Johnson, the GOP chairman in Columbiana County in Strickland's southeastern Ohio home region, views the governor as more liberal than he's letting on. "He is biding his time, focusing on accommodation and good-sounding platitudes," Johnson said. "The public sees this as 'sound' and 'responsible.'"
Bill Binning, a Youngstown State political scientist and former GOP county chairman, said Ohio's term limits, which cap service at eight years, make it tough for GOP legislators to outmaneuver the governor.
"You're in the Republican leadership for two terms, maybe speaker for one, and then you're out," Binning said. "You don't have the capacity to take on a skillful governor. He's been able to run all over these people."
Given Ohio's swing-state status, pundits have speculated that Strickland could wind up on a list of potential running mates for the Democratic presidential nominee. "Maybe a Democratic governor would be the final piece of the puzzle for making Ohio blue," said GOP consultant Michael Gaynor. Strickland, though, offered "Out There" a Shermanesque dismissal of any such rumors.
In an early-October Quinnipiac poll of Ohio voters, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) led the top Republican hopefuls by six- to 17-point margins; U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) also led top GOP contenders.
Still, even with the sagging national Republican brand, as well as anxiety about the sluggish economy, the Ohio GOP has its strengths. Besides the Legislature, the GOP holds a solid majority of county positions, which provide a stellar farm team. In addition, the state party has developed a highly organized grassroots operation, though its mediocre performance in 2006 undercut the aura of invincibility that it cultivated after securing Bush a second term in 2004.
In his own polling, Brett Sciotto, president of the GOP consulting firm American Strategies, is finding even solid Republicans willing to consider voting for a Democrat.He said there's "a real shift to independents, caused by a cocktail of federal and state issues. It makes the state even more up for grabs."
Beyond 2008, Strickland will face pressure to make an aggressive mark in his next and final budget, which is due in the run-up to his re-election bid in 2010, when former GOP U.S. Reps. John Kasich or Rob Portman may run against him. Strickland will need to show a tangible reversal in the state's economic fortunes, analysts say. "We have an old, industrial economy and have not built enough infrastructure for the new economy," said Binning, the former Republican official. "That will be the test for Strickland, and he has not showed yet that he can pass it."
Editor's Note: The column was corrected to clarify that Strickland's budget proposed freezing college tuition for one year, rather than two, although he and the Legislature ultimately agreed on a two-year freeze.