Back in 2006, it wasn't until Dec. 11 -- and two recounts -- that Deborah Pryce, a Republican first elected to Congress from Columbus, Ohio, in 1992, was finally declared a winner in her re-election bid, fighting off a tough challenge from Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy. Pryce won by just 1,055 votes.
Pryce isn't running this year. But Kilroy is back on the ballot, giving Democrats hope that they can finally grab the seat.
"She picked up from where she left off in the last race," Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said optimistically. Van Hollen quickly added that her Republican opponent, Steve Stivers, was a lobbyist who represented banks and corporate chiefs before his election to the state Senate -- a big negative, he said, in a state where thousands of families are dealing with mortgage foreclosures.
Kilroy leads Stivers by 5 points according to a late September poll conducted by SurveyUSA for Roll Call, a 2-point gain since its last poll, conducted in early August. A victory in Ohio's 15th Congressional District -- where President Bush won by a wide margin in 2000 and barely held on in 2004 -- would give Democrats further proof of what they say is their growing strength in the suburbs.
Karl Rove made turning out the vote in traditionally Republican-rich suburbs and rapidly growing exurbs central to Bush's 2004 re-election strategy. But since then, Democrats haven’t been shy about going after the very same voters, and they have been making significant inroads, picking up 16 House seats in districts that were suburban or exurban in 2006.
Typical suburban voters are white, usually with college degrees and white-collar jobs, said Daniel Coffey, a political science professor at The University of Akron who studies public opinion and state politics. While they tend to lean Republican, they are less ideologically fixed and more open to persuasion, and this year, once again, they're expected to be decisive. Exit polls in the 2004 presidential race found that suburban voters made up 46 percent of the electorate and favored Bush over John Kerry, 52-47, a 3-point increase over Bush’s portion of the suburban vote in 2000.
The National Suburban Poll, conducted for the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, and released late last month found John McCain leading Barack Obama among suburban voters, 48 percent to 42 percent. These voters listed the economy as the top issue in the 2008 presidential race, and most said they or someone they know has been hit hard by high energy prices, job losses, and benefits cuts.
Pryce's district, which includes all of Columbus, except the city's east side, as well as portions of nearby Franklin, Madison, and Union counties, is just the kind of place Democrats have in mind when they talk about suburbs where voters worried about protecting their standard of living, are willing to consider Democrats despite a history of favoring Republicans. This isn’t like the Democratic-leaning northeastern part of the state, where skeletons of steel mills are a constant reminder of a thriving industrial past. Instead, it is home to Ohio State, several Honda plants (facilities and data retrieval companies), and the corporate headquarters of Abercrombie & Fitch and Wendy's. These are white-collar voters whose concerns about daily life may make them more open to Democrats than they have been in the past.
"I think you can clearly say there is a shift in the values of a lot of the voters there," said Coffey, as they focus on everyday issues like the need to fix crumbling roads, improve education, and reduce health-care costs -- and are willing to see their taxes increase a little to get all that done.
"These voters are the ones who are more attracted to the center-left economic policy of the Democratic Party," Coffey said. He added that, were it not for the advantages that an incumbent like Pryce enjoys, "it probably should have turned to a Democratic district a few cycles ago,” just as a shift toward Democrats in the Northern Virginia suburbs around Washington, D.C., helped elect Tim Kaine governor in 2005. This year, Democrats were further encouraged by the victory of Bill Foster, a Democrat, in a special election to succeed Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House, in a district that includes some of suburban Chicago, although they acknowledge that several factors combined to tip that seat.
Ohio Democratic Party Chair Chris Redfern points to a crowd of some 35,000 that turned up for an Obama rally at a high school in the Columbus suburb of Dublin at the end of August as proof of the progress being made. "In years past, Democrats didn't have a significant level of support in those parts of the district," he said. Kilroy is also enjoying strong support in the northwest suburbs of her district, an area of recent residential growth, Redfern said.
Democrats in the state are also encouraged by the more than 700,000 new registered Democrats and the continued weakness of the local, scandal-plagued Republican Party. They hope to deliver the state for Obama, take back the state house, and, with Kilroy and others, shift the balance in the state's congressional delegation, where Republicans now outnumber Democrats, 11 to seven.
Van Hollen was optimistic that Steve Driehaus, a state representative, could unseat seven-term Republican incumbent Steve Chabot in a district that includes part of Cincinnati and its western suburbs. In another Cincinnati-area race, Dr. Victoria Wulsin is again challenging Rep. Jean Schmidt, the controversial Republican who she came close to ousting in 2006. In northeastern Ohio, Democrats are eyeing the seat being vacated by Ralph Regula, an 18-term Republican. Their candidate is John Boccieri, a state senator and Air Force veteran who served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the Democrats' dominance of the suburbs is not assured. A recent analysis by The Plain Dealer found that more new voter registrations have been recorded in Cleveland, where Democrats usually win by a wide margin, and other parts of Cuyahoga County, than the combined totals from the counties that are home to Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Akron.
And, says Coffey, there may just be something in the water. "In most states, you probably have a situation where voters will break Democratic, all things being equal, especially in this kind of environment." But, in Ohio, there is a built-in bias toward Republicans. "There is something that is cultural about living in Ohio that just makes a voter think more about voting Republican. That voter living in another state might be a Democrat."
Despite that, Van Hollen sounds confident. "We made great strides in the suburbs in the last congressional election, and every indicator suggests that the trend will continue," he said. "The evidence from around the country and in these Ohio districts suggests that [voters] are going to have much more confidence in the Democratic candidates."