GOP Struggles in Ohio

Ohio long ago cemented its place as a bellwether for the nation when it comes to presidential politics -- and early signs from the state about 2008 are decidedly blue.

Democratic presidential candidates won 11 of 12 match-ups with Republicans in a Quinnipiac poll of Ohio voters last month. (The only pairing that had a Democrat on the losing end was Barack Obama versus John McCain.)

But a string of recent developments make Ohio a leading indicator of something else: which party will control Congress after the next election -- and by what margin. There, too, things look good for Democrats.

In the space of just two months, three Republican members of the state's House delegation -- David Hobson, Ralph Regula, and Deborah Pryce -- announced that they would not seek re-election. (A fourth, Paul Gillmor, died in office; a special election to fill his seat is scheduled for December.) It was all enough to make Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, concede that Ohio is a "challenge state."

But the challenge for the GOP isn't limited to Ohio, even though it may be more pronounced here, and happening sooner. Around the rest of the country a total of 12 House Republicans have so far called it quits, and that number is sure to grow. One explanation is the simple, sad facts of life for House Republicans. "I don't like being in the minority," Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood, elected in the 1994 Republican takeover, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's not that much fun, and the prospects for the future don't look that good." He isn't running again.

Add to those open seats the unusual cash advantage the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee already has over Cole's NRCC, and you begin to get a sense of the real challenge Republicans face, not just in Ohio.

Hobson's seat, in the center of the state, is considered solidly Republican. But that can't be said for the others. Regula's seat, around Canton, could be tough for Republicans to hold onto. John Boccieri, a Democratic state senator and the DCCC's top pick for the district, already has more than $220,000 in his campaign account, while Republicans have yet to settle on their candidate.

Pryce barely held on to her Columbus seat in 2006, when her position in the House GOP leadership seemed to do more harm than good. The district has become more Democratic in recent years, and her challenger from last time around, Mary Jo Kilroy, is already busy raising money for 2008.

Though Pryce announced her decision back in August, Republicans have yet to decide who to put up in the race -- another sign of weakness. The state party has had little success with its ongoing attempts at rebuilding and reaching out to a new generation, after a series of scandals and the drubbing it took up and down the ballot in 2006.

Hesitancy to become a GOP candidate is understandable. Nonetheless, "there are a lot of people who want to run," a GOP operative told me, insisting that Kilroy shouldn't count on anything. If she didn't win in 2006, when at the top of the ticket, Democrat Ted Strickland trounced his Republican opponent, Ken Blackwell, how could she prevail in a presidential year, when things are sure to be much closer?

But even this party stalwart acknowledged the tough times. "Republicans are still suffering a bit of a political hangover and Democrats are enjoying a bit of momentum that they are carrying through from last year... We have had to work and will have to keep working with the rank and file to remind them these battles are still winnable, in counties like Franklin [around Columbus] that are going in the other direction."

Elsewhere in the state, Jean Schmidt, the Cincinnati Republican best known for her near-loss to Iraq War veteran Paul Hackett, is facing a primary challenge from Phil Heimlich, a former county commissioner. She has fought off party challengers before, and while voters may prefer Heimlich's gentler tone, it will be difficult for him to woo the district's conservative Republicans while at the same time distancing himself from her dogged support of the war. Heimlich has about $220,000 in the bank to Schmidt's $110,000. But Victoria Wulsin, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Schmidt in 2006, has more than the two of them combined.

In the rural and heavily Republican district in eastern Ohio that Bob Ney used to represent -- before pleading guilty to corruption charges -- Democrats cheered when Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association, changed his mind about running against freshman Democrat Zach Space. A Republican challenger will have to contend with Space's early fundraising lead, and the legacy of the more than $3 million the NRCC spent in a failed 2006 effort to keep the seat in party hands.

The Republican race to fill Gillmor's seat, to be decided in a Nov. 6 primary, has featured some ugly red-on-red sniping, bad enough to prompt a warning letter from the state party. Despite the fact that it's usually a safe GOP district, candidates were told that a "negative, divisive primary campaign will not only harm our efforts to retain this important seat in the December general election but also will hurt the winner's ability to unify the base and avoid unnecessary future challenges."

There is still plenty of work for Democrats. Some 30 freshmen who won formerly Republican seats across the country in 2006 need to prove they deserve re-election. But so far, just two Democrats have announced they are giving up their House seats, and both are from solidly Democratic districts. By contrast, eight of the GOP lawmakers who said they won't run again represent districts the Cook Political Report says could be competitive.

Democrats are surely hoping that, once again, as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. And Republicans know it. "You can't get down," said the GOP operative. "The voters are like dogs, they can sense it when you're worried."