Bringing It All Back Home

In the final days of Ted Strickland's run for Ohio governor, as his lead over GOP nominee Ken Blackwell has grown to a stunning 36 points in the last Columbus Dispatch poll, his campaign stops have felt less like political rallies than revival meetings. At the Eagles Fraternal Club in rural Putnam County, Strickland tells the overflow crowd, "I'm not going to talk a lot of policy stuff tonight, it's not that kind of night."

Strickland, a Methodist minister before he became a congressman, proceeds to preach about the values he learned growing up on a dirt road called Duck Run in Ohio's Appalachian region. He talks about his eight brothers and sisters, about his steelworker father, and about "the most marvelous mother that ever walked on God's earth." Then he goes on about the family home that didn't have indoor plumbing till he was in high school.

"In the wintertime we took our baths in a big round galvanized tub," Strickland says. "Anyone here ever taken a bath in a big round galvanized tub?" Hands shoot up in the Eagles Club. "A lot of poor folks in this room here," he deadpans, and the poor folks of Putnam County -- who twice went more than 3-to-1 for George W. Bush -- roar with laughter. As the laughter dies down, you begin to believe the rumor that Strickland's internal polls have him leading in every single one of Ohio's eighteen congressional districts.

Strickland isn't the only Ohio Democrat riding high. The Dispatch poll, released Sunday, showed Democrats in every statewide nonjudicial race leading by at least ten points. Other polls suggest the party could win four GOP congressional seats, which would give the Democrats a 10-8 edge in Ohio's House delegation. Strickland may be telling crowds that "the hay is not yet in the barn" -- and that's wise given lingering fears about voter suppression and ballot fraud -- but most Democrats here believe they are on the verge of a historic victory.

But even if Democrats do win big today, they'll have to answer one nagging question: Did they administer a beating to the scandal-plagued Republicans that they can take real credit for, or was the punishment purely self-inflicted?

From the evidence at the Eagles Club, it may seem that Democrats did little more than nominate a genial gubernatorial candidate with rural roots and religious training, attach the rest of the ticket tightly to his coattails, and then wait for the GOP to implode. But on Saturday, at a rally to raise the minimum wage at Cleveland's Antioch Baptist Church, the story gets a little more complicated.

In the sanctuary of the church, slouched in a stately wooden chair, Ohio senate minority leader C.J. Prentiss surveys the scene and smiles. A year and a half earlier, Prentiss' attempt to pass a minimum-wage hike was quashed in the Republican-dominated legislature, so she began building a coalition to support a ballot amendment that would raise the state's $5.15 an hour minimum wage. In the summer of 2005, Prentiss and her allies in the labor movement and the community group ACORN kicked off their amendment campaign with a Cleveland rally featuring once-and-future presidential candidate John Edwards. Now, Edwards is back, the pews are full, and polling suggests that the amendment they've placed on this year's ballot will pass by a wide margin.

When Prentiss began her fight to raise the wage, Ohio's Democrats were perhaps as low as they'd ever been. They'd been outmaneuvered -- if not cheated -- by Republicans in the 2004 elections, and with the GOP having held every nonjudicial statewide office for a decade many Democrats seemed resigned to life as a permanent minority party. The minimum wage battle gave Democrats the opportunity to fight back.

The party's counteroffensive gained further strength in December when Chris Redfern, then Ohio house minority leader, resigned his leadership post to take over the ailing Ohio Democratic Party (ODP). Redfern moved quickly to strengthen the party's operations. Even before Redfern arrived the party had gotten an infusion of cash from the Democratic National Committee and hired five permanent field organizers.

Now, the ODP is running its own version of the DNC's 50 State Strategy in Ohio's 88 counties. In counties that Democrats barely contested in 2004 -- counties where the GOP racked up 70 percent and more of the vote -- many local Democrats say the level of activity this year exceeds 2004. Jim Beasley, Strickland's campaign co-chair in southern Ohio's Brown County, says their GOTV operation this year is bigger, and began earlier, than ever before.

Brewster Rhoads, a Cincinnati-based political consultant, says this year's coordinated campaign in Hamilton County had paid staff in place by July, far earlier than he can remember for a previous midterm. By contrast, Rhoads, who ran the party's coordinated campaign in Hamilton in the 1990 midterms, says he wasn't hired until Labor Day that year.

Nevertheless, as voters go to the polls today, the Democrats are still playing catch-up with the GOP on logistics. Only this year did the ODP begin using Web-based software that allows county parties to update and share voter files with the state party. And one county chair said the new software from Sage Systems had numerous bugs that the party spent much of the spring working out.

Some observers are deeply skeptical of the party's GOTV operations. "The Democrats have been out of power so long, they're rusty when it comes to real campaigning," said one union official. "It's not like anybody has done a great job running a campaign. It's been very disorganized."

Though this official concedes that the minimum-wage campaign "has been used effectively to ID Democratic voters," the official believes the Republicans will do a much better job getting their voters to the polls. If there is a landslide, the official argues, disgust with the Republicans -- not the strength of Democrats -- will explain it. According to the official, "It'll be interesting to see people rewrite history and say what a great job we've done."

But no matter what history records about the party's GOTV operation, Democrats in Ohio have shown how to run a campaign whose appeal spans both the Antioch Baptist Church and the Eagles Club. No doubt, there will be fierce disagreements within the party over what campaign message voters were hearing. Was it Strickland's conservative stance on the Second Amendment? Or was it his progressive version of economic populism?

As for Strickland, in an interview at the Eagles Club, he avers that he's in close agreement on most issues -- especially trade and economic issues -- with U.S. Senate candidate Sherrod Brown, a good friend and one of the most liberal members of his party. "I consider myself a very progressive person," Strickland says.

Not long after that interview, I'm sitting in the Antioch Baptist Church, listening to John Edwards put a new twist on an old Bill Clinton line. It's time, Edwards says, for America "to put an end to poverty as we know it." It sounds a lot like something Ted Strickland might say.

Jim McNeill, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., wrote about Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown's campaign for the U.S. Senate in the October issue of The American Prospect.

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