Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ohio River Valley Lacks Competition

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Three years ago, the Ohio River Valley was the epicenter of the battle for control of Congress. But in just two election cycles, the long swath of Republican territory has moved from red to blue to virtually uncompetitive on the Congressional level.

Inspired by a spring 2006 column by Roll Call contributing writer Stuart Rothenberg, Roll Call alumni Chris Cillizza and Jim VandeHei of the Washington Post embarked on the “Ohio River Ramble” that fall, posting dispatches from nine contiguous and competitive districts that run from Evansville, Ind., to Wheeling, W.Va.

At the time, Republicans held seven of the nine districts, and George W. Bush carried all but one (Kentucky’s 3rd) in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. But the competitive nature of the races and the fact that the GOP was playing defense foreshadowed the Democratic tidal wave that was about to hit.

Now, Republicans control only two of the nine seats. And with few recruits and more limited resources, only one of the districts even looks competitive in 2010 at this point.

There has been plenty of attention paid to the extinction of House Republicans in the Northeast. But if the GOP is going to win back the majority anytime soon — as House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was the latest to predict — it’s difficult to see the party gaining 41 seats without making significant inroads in Middle America territory such as the Ohio River Valley.

Republicans are actively recruiting in Ohio’s 18th district, but the party has struggled to find a top-notch candidate ever since then-Rep. Bob Ney (R) pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges and left Congress under a cloud of scandal in November 2006. Rep. Zack Space (D), won the open-seat race to succeed Ney and then easily disposed of his little-known GOP opponent in 2008.

“Republicans aren’t going to take back the majority without this district,” one GOP operative said about Ohio’s 18th. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won there with 52 percent in 2008, and Bush won 57 percent in 2004 and 55 percent in 2000.

The Ohio River territory demonstrates that developing a list of targets is much more sophisticated than matching a district’s presidential preference against the current Member’s party identification. If it were that simple, Republicans would clearly have more opportunities to go on offense in the region, since McCain carried all but two of the nine districts — Ohio’s 1st and Kentucky’s 3rd.

Whether it’s the current political environment, the strength of the incumbent or the threat of losing the seat in two years because of reapportionment and redistricting, Republicans have simply come up empty in terms of recruiting in many of these districts. Currently, GOP strategists are most excited about the opportunity to reclaim Ohio’s 1st district, where President Barack Obama won by 11 points but former Rep. Steve Chabot (R) is running to reclaim the seat that he lost in 2008.

Chabot was one of the Republicans’ few success stories in the area in 2006, as he narrowly held on to win re-election.

In 2006, Democrats won four of the seven GOP-held seats in the region as part of their 30-seat pickup nationwide.

Meanwhile, Republicans were unable to capitalize on the flurry of ethical questions surrounding Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) at the time, and the veteran lawmaker won re-election.

The GOP also missed an opportunity when then-state Sen. Charlie Wilson (D) failed to gather 50 valid signatures to qualify for the primary ballot in Ohio's 6th district open-seat race. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee stepped in to help Wilson win the primary as a write-in candidate and then win the general, and he was re-elected with 62 percent.

Republican Mike Sodrel and Democrat Baron Hill faced off four consecutive times in Indiana’s 9th district. But after Hill defeated Sodrel by 5 points in 2006 and 20 points in 2008, Democrats are optimistic that he will have an easier road to re-election in 2010. And in the neighboring 8th district, now-Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) demolished then-Rep. John Hostettler (R) by 22 points in 2006 and then cruised to a 30-point win in 2008.

All four districts went for Bush twice and then McCain, yet now there is only a faint pulse of competitiveness.

“John McCain carried 49 districts that are currently represented by a Democrat,” National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Ken Spain said. “Our goal is to put a number of those seats in play and create new opportunities in places where we feel we have strong candidates looking at running.”

But a big part of the Republicans’ problem is the strength of the Democratic incumbents.

“The No. 1 factor is candidate quality,” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group. “And we have really good Democratic candidates in those districts.” Yang works for Ellsworth and Hill, and also worked on state Sen. David Boswell’s (D) unsuccessful run in Kentucky’s 2nd district last year.

Republican recruitment prospects against Wilson, Ellsworth, Hill and Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) are dim, if not dormant. Republicans may find a candidate to run against Mollohan, who was unopposed in 2008.

“We may have a better opportunity in a more marginal district where the incumbent is soft,” admitted one GOP strategist, who also explained that the longer these incumbents go without serious challenges, the more difficult they will be to defeat in the future.

With multiple, inefficient media markets, advertising in the Ohio River Valley districts can be an expensive affair for the DCCC and the NRCC.

In 2006, the two campaign committees combined to spend more than $25 million in independent expenditures in the nine races. Two years later, the two parties spent less than $6 million in the same nine districts, as Republicans had less money and the races became less competitive. Even less money is likely to be spent in the region in 2010.

As the pendulum decidedly swung toward Democrats in the past two cycles, there have been a couple of bright spots for Republicans. Democrats have targeted Kentucky’s 2nd district twice, but then-Rep. Ron Lewis (R) turned back state Rep. Mike Weaver (D) in 2006, and now-Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) held the seat when Lewis retired in 2008.

Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) has solidified his position over the last three years in the 4th district. After losing his initial race to then-Rep. Ken Lucas (D) in 2002, Davis won the open-seat race two years later when Lucas retired. In 2006, Davis faced off against Lucas, but the Republican prevailed easily. Last cycle, Davis won with more than 60 percent of the vote, and he’s not at risk in 2010.

Republicans have also held Ohio’s 2nd district and West Virginia’s 2nd district despite Democratic attempts to target GOP Reps. Jean Schmidt and Shelley Moore Capito, respectively.

House Republicans have not made any one region their top priority in 2010, instead focusing on fielding a diverse crop of challengers and trying to regain strength across the country. It’s psychologically necessary for the morale of the party, according to one House GOP operative.

Still, many Republicans acknowledge they face a significant challenge overall.

“We have a problem everywhere,” one GOP strategist said.

This story first appeared in Roll Call on June 18, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.