Dr. Nice Vs. Mean Jean

Adams County, OH -- Just how high will the Democratic tide rise on Tuesday? There may be no better place to gauge the strength of the coming wave than here in southwestern Ohio's 2nd congressional district. Running a hundred miles along the Ohio River, from humble farming towns in the east to Cincinnati's well-heeled suburbs out west, the 2nd district has long been one of the most Republican in America, going 64 percent for George W. Bush in 2004 and choosing the distinctly unappealing GOP candidate Jean Schmidt over the charismatic Iraq veteran Paul Hackett in a special congressional election nine months later. Yet on Monday, the influential political analyst Charlie Cook shifted the race from "Lean Republican" to "Toss Up."

Here, as in dozens of suddenly competitive districts across the country, it's easy to assume that Democratic candidate Victoria Wulsin is merely riding a wave of voter discontent with Republican corruption and the Iraq war. Indeed, Cook insists that it's impossible for Democrats to do anything more than surf that angry wave. "I've never seen a positive message win a midterm," he says. And don't point to the GOP's "Contract with America" as a counter-example. Cook and others note that only 31 percent of voters had even heard of the contract when congressional Republicans swept back into power in 1994.

But Cook's argument is actually unconvincing. Whether or not voters knew about the contract in 1994, Republican candidates had it burned into their brains, and it was key to organizing their efforts. Today, the same phenomenon is at work in Ohio. On Monday, as Cook was upgrading Wulsin's chances, she was out campaigning with the Democrats' wildly popular gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland and dutifully repeating his pledge to "Turn Around Ohio" with better jobs, improved education, and affordable health care. Just as Gingrich's Contract with America kept Republicans focused, Strickland's Turn Around Ohio platform is turning Democratic protest candidacies into something stronger.

A close look at Wulsin's race shows that her once-marginal campaign took off by pushing beyond the standard "Had Enough?" plaint. To the extent that other Democrats are able to do the same, Tuesday just may see a blue wave wash over the House, and perhaps even the Senate.

Wulsin, a public health doctor, reminds voters of her medical training every chance she gets. All her campaign signs tout her as "Dr. Victoria Wulsin," and in every speech she stresses her profession. Somehow, even the most treacly health care talking points turn into applause lines when they come from a physician. Speaking Monday at a rally in rural Adams County, the crowd erupted when Wulsin merely said, "I know we can provide health care more efficiently and with less expense."

Though the rally was headlined by Strickland, Wulsin was arguably the star. Senate candidate Sherrod Brown delivered his speech wearing a Wulsin t-shirt, and after the rally the crowd gravitated toward her. Here in Adams County -- where tobacco leaves hang in weathered barns and the local accent, and sensibility, is more southern than midwestern -- people mobbed Wulsin even though her red power suit made her resemble a Hillary Clinton impersonator.

The overwhelming impression that Wulsin, the mother of four grown sons, manages to convey is a genuine, relentless niceness. And that makes her the perfect foil for GOP incumbent Jean Schmidt, who became nationally known last year as "Mean Jean" when she called decorated Vietnam veteran and Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha a coward during a debate over the Iraq war.

Even fellow Republicans have issues with Schmidt. In 2004, she alienated many in her party during an ugly and unsuccessful primary fight for state senate. And in 2005, when 2nd district congressman Rob Portman resigned to become U.S. trade representative, few expected her to emerge from the special election primary as the GOP nominee. But Schmidt played up her presidency of the outfit Greater Cincinnati Right to Life, and in a crowded field she eked out a victory.

Since Portman had always won the seat by more than 2-to-1 margins, that was supposed to be that. But Schmidt's Democratic opponent was Paul Hackett, a marine reservist just back from Iraq, and he transformed the race into a referendum on the increasingly unpopular war. With his matinee-idol looks and trial-lawyer eloquence, Hackett came within four points of beating Schmidt, and the near-upset left many Democrats hungry for a rematch. Wulsin herself says, "I really wanted Paul to come back. He was popular, he had momentum, he would have been great." But Hackett mounted a short-lived run for U.S. Senate instead, and Wulsin, who had placed second to him in the 2005 Democratic primary, prevailed in this year's primary race.

Though Wulsin was well-liked, few thought she could recreate the Hackett magic. Chris Gaffney, the Democratic Party chair in suburban Cincinnati's Warren County, still winces when he remembers her interview with the party's executive committee in February. "She was speaking with her head down reading from a legal pad," says Gaffney. "It was rough."

But Gaffney is the first to admit that Wulsin has undergone a transformation on the stump. "I've never seen anyone get so good so fast," he says. With Wulsin's message tightly focused on the two leading issues of health care and the economy (both ranked above Iraq in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll of Ohioans), her campaign caught fire. In July, a poll commissioned by Wulsin's campaign showed the race tied, and by September independent polls confirmed that she was within striking distance of Schmidt. This Wednesday, a Survey USA poll showed Wulsin with a three-point lead overall and a commanding 20-point lead among independent voters.

That is devastating news for Republicans, since they've poured far more money into the race than Democrats, much of it on anti-Wulsin mailers meant to sway those very independents. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has already given the maximum $80,000 in direct contributions to Schmidt's campaign and dumped another $300,000 into independent expenditures against Wulsin. Though the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) also maxed out on direct contributions to Wulsin, it had reported no independent expenditures in the district as of November 1.

But even without further assistance from the DCCC, Wulsin's chances look good. On Sunday, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story revealing that Schmidt has quietly backed plans to store nuclear waste at an old uranium processing facility on the eastern edge of the district. (That news, it should be noted, appeared three days earlier on Chris Baker's indispensable Ohio 2nd Blog.) Now Wulsin is running a radio ad in which she skewers Schmidt's "terrible idea" and says that, "as a public health doctor ... keeping you and your family healthy and safe is my top priority."

The ad perfectly reinforces the core message of her campaign. It goes beyond a purely negative "Had Enough?" attack and presents Wulsin as a positive alternative. Maybe that's why 2nd district independents have been flocking to her camp instead of Schmidt's. And if Wulsin has figured out how to break the GOP stranglehold on this district, then Tuesday may turn out to be a very good day for Democrats indeed.

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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