US mid-term elections: Battle for the US Bellwether

Ohio is the key swing state in American politics, with an unrivalled ability to pick a winner. The main players are descending on it - and it looks good for the Democrats. By Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent US

For once, the hottest tickets here in these parts are not for the Buckeyes, the all-conquering Ohio State University college football team. They belong to a temporary performer at OSU - John Stewart, cult-figure host of The Daily Show, the smash satirical spoof on Comedy Central which often seems far closer to the national political pulse than its plodding equivalents in the conventional media.

All this week, as America's ferocious midterm election campaign moves towards its climax next Tuesday, Stewart has been hosting his show from the OSU campus. He came back, he told his audience, to see whether Ohio's political charms, so compelling two years ago, were equally irresistible in 2006.

"We're going to Ohio because it was the prettiest girl at the ball in the 2004 election. The debutante that everyone wanted to seduce and we would like to see if the boy ever called again." So, he declared, "We're going out there to find out what happened to this swing state that was visited so many times, and to the people who were massaged by Democrats and Republicans alike."

Stewart and the rest of us need not have worried. Six days before the vote, this Midwestern state is being overrun by political glitterati of every hue, starting with the First Lady.

If possible, Ohio, which has long enjoyed a quasi-mythical status as America's supreme political bellwether, is even more the crucible of the contest this time around. Everyone knows it was the state that finally handed the White House to George Bush in 2004. But long before that, Ohio was famous for voting with the winner in almost every presidential election (FDR in 1944 and John Kennedy have been the only exceptions in the past century).

It is partly rural, partly rust-belt industrial, part rich agricultural, and part hi-tech. In short, it has a little bit of everything, a microcosm of America, right down to its bulging waistline and propensity for fast food - Ohio is "round on the ends and high cholesterol in the middle," one comedic "correspondent" on The Daily Show noted.

This time, too, the state is a symbol - not of Republican success as two years ago but of Republican excess and failure. This is the place where all the sins of America's ruling party have come home to roost. Some midterms are local in flavour, others are national. These midterm elections in Ohio are a mixture of both.

At one level they are a referendum on an unpopular Republican president, on Republican policies and Republican misbehaviour in Washington, from the Iraq war to the Jack Abramoff and Mark Foley scandals, whose tentacles both extend into the state. Fuelling the revolt is the palpable sense that it is time for the other side to be given a chance.

They are also a vote of no confidence in the national economy.

Ohio has largely missed out on the past five years of recovery.

Unemployment here runs above the national average; already, back in 2004 lost jobs, outsourcing and indecent corporate profits and top executive pay were the issues which almost carried John Kerry to victory. In few industrial states do complaints resonate as loudly about the national minimum wage, held at $5.15 (£2.70)per hour since 1997 - which the Republican-controlled Congress has refused to increase unless it was linked to a bill eliminating estate tax, or death duties.

But the local landscape is equally bleak for Republicans. These elections are a heaven-sent opportunity to "throw the bums out" after a series of eye-popping scandals at state level, abuses that have grown out of years of unchallenged Republican rule. As Herb Asher, political scientist at OSU, tartly notes: "It's hard to blame the Democrats for anything here, because there are no Democrats in power here."

Less than a week before the vote, "everything is still going the Democrats' way," Mr Asher says. "They're running away with the governorship and could gain other top state government offices. They'll almost certainly win Mike DeWine's Senate seat, and could pick up a couple, maybe three, congressional seats. At this stage the only question is, whether on the day the Republicans can once again get out the grass roots vote."

But this time it will be harder than usual, because Republican problems start at the very top, in the statehouse here in Columbus. Bob Taft, the outgoing governor is a scion of one of Ohio's greatest political dynasties, a family that produced William Howard Taft, the 27th president, as well as senators, ambassadors and jurists.

This Taft, alas, will be remembered only for scandals, culminating in his own conviction in August 2005 for ethics violations. That autumn, his approval rating fell to 6.5 per cent - which may just be the highest level of unpopularity ever attained by an American politician.

Even then, however, Mr Taft refused to resign (thanks to the iron Republican grip on the state legislature).

If that was bad enough, the "Coingate" may prove an even greater debacle.

Thomas Noe, once a top Republican lobbyist and a Bush-Cheney campaign chairman in Ohio, has already been convicted of money laundering. He is currently on trial on charges of embezzling up to $50m of state money invested in a rare coin fund he ran. If convicted, Mr Noe could be jailed for 10 years. All that took place on the very benign watch of Mr Taft.

Unsurprisingly, it has been an uphill battle for Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican candidate to succeed him. He trails Ted Strickland, his Democratic opponent, by up to 20 per cent in some polls. Mr Blackwell, it is true, is a polarising figure by any standards, aggressively conservative and vilified by Democrats for his hardball tactics when, as Ohio's Secretary of State, he supervised voting in the bitterly fought 2004 presidential election. Running in his own right two years on, he has never stood a chance.

More surprising have been the travails of Mike DeWine, Ohio's senior senator. Mr DeWine, who is seeking a third term, is one of those moderate Republicans to whom Ohioans usually warm to. Yet it is assumed he will be soundly defeated next week.

His Democratic opponent Sherrod Brown is one of the most left-wing congressmen in Washington, at first nowhere near as well funded as Mr DeWine, but if the polls are correct now heading for a double-digit victory. Such is the backlash here against all things Republican.

That backlash has only been intensified by the downfall of Bob Ney, still the Republican representative for Ohio's 18th district, despite becoming the first sitting congressman to be convicted in the bribes-for-political favours scandal surrounding the disgraced former Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff - he of Indian gambling casino and all-expenses-paid golfing trips to St Andrews fame.

Like Mr Noe, Mr Ney could face up to a decade behind bars. His sprawling and largely rural district, carried by Mr Bush by 14 points in 2004, now seems certain to be taken over by Democrat Zack Space, a hitherto little known chief legal officer from the small town of Dover, some 100 miles south of Cleveland.

At the opposite end of Ohio, Democrats are hoping for a second gain, in the stately old river city of Cincinnati where the conservative Steve Chabot is seeking a seventh term.

But the most perfect political storm of all is here in the capital Columbus, at the state's geographic dead centre, where the separate demons of the Iraq war, President Bush's unpopularity, scandal and economic woes have coalesced to turn what a couple of years ago seemed a routine Republican win into a cliff-hanger - and some would say, the most emblematic congressional race in the country.

The struggle in the Ohio's 15th district pits Deborah Pryce, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, against Mary Jo Kilroy, a local government official. Ms Kilroy is serious, sensible and plainly very competent but normally she would have little chance against a seven-term incumbent regularly re-elected with 60 per cent or more of the vote. But not in this noxious Republican year of 2006.

At a Halloween night rally at a steel workers' union assembly hall just north of downtown Columbus, suitably adorned with Republican hobgoblins, you could sense the excitement generated by a candidacy whose hour may just have come.

"Next Tuesday, lets make Ohio-15 the 15th gain for the Democrats, that gives us control of the House," Ms Kilroy told her rapturous audience. Then she recites a litany of Pryce's failings - "wrong on Iraq, wrong on the deficit, wrong on the minimum wage, wrong on social security, wrong on health care" - before drawing attention to Ms Pryce's unwavering support for the scariest seasonal ghoul of them all, President Bush.

The next speaker was Steny Hoyer, blunt-spoken minority whip in the House who stands to become majority leader under speaker Nancy Pelosi, if the Democrats do get that 15th seat, and who is the latest in a procession of party bigwigs across the state trying to nail down victory on 7 November.

On cue, he rails at the "culture of corruption of culture and cover-up in Washington... a culture that cares about politics, not about people."

His target, needless to say, was Ms Pryce. The squalid Mark Foley affair, involving a Florida congressman who made homosexual advances to under-age men, ought not to have resonated greatly here - except that Ms Pryce happened to be part of the Republican House leadership accused of mounting a cover-up of the affair. Worse still, she had confided to a local magazine that one of her five best friends on Capitol Hill was... yes, Mr Foley. Truly, this is not her lucky year.

The Republicans however are pulling out all the stops. Laura Bush, as popular as her husband is unpopular, was making a campaign appearance with Mr Pryce yesterday. An army of paid party workers and volunteers have flooded into the district, and money once earmarked by the Republican National Committee for Mr DeWine's seemingly doomed Senate campaign has been diverted here, financing a TV ad blitz whose very intensity confirms how close the race has become.

Local Republican mailings are pulling no punches either, seeking to link Ms Kilroy with the Ku Klux Klan, and portraying her as a patsy of the terrorists. Inevitably, too, there is a pitch to Christian conservatives, as important a prop of the Republican vote in Ohio as anywhere in the US. "Keep God in America," says one flyer, "Keep Mary Jo Kilroy out of Congress."

Will it work? When it comes to getting down and dirty in politics, Republicans have few peers.

Some detect a Republican plot in the confused plans to tighten ID requirements at Ohio's voting booths on Tuesday. If implemented, that would bear hardest on those most likely to move - the poor, the young, and minorities, categories also more likely to vote Democrat.

"Don't forget to take your birth certificates when you vote," Mr Hoyer said during the campaign. He was half joking but in the 15th district, on which control of the House may hinge, few were inclined to laugh.