Bush Bashing Cuts Both Ways in Ohio Race

by Stuart Rothenberg June 25, 2010 · 8:59 AM EDT

Talk with Democratic candidates for Congress across the country, as I do, and you will hear the same two lines of argument about how they are going to win their contests in November.

Both narratives seek to morph November’s elections away from being a referendum on President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress.

First, these candidates promise that they will contrast their records and experiences with the views and experiences of their Republican opponents, who, they argue, defend Wall Street and big corporations instead of the average person, opposed health care reform and efforts to stop global warming, and opposed efforts to revive the economy.

The approach relies heavily on “defining” the opponent — whether it’s portraying the Republican as a corrupt Congressional insider, as Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan does to Rep. Roy Blunt (R), or as a tea-party-backed extremist, as supporters of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) do when they talk about his race against Republican challenger Sharron Angle.

Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (D) did the same thing when, during a recent interview, he characterized his race against Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania essentially as a messenger of change (Callahan) against a Member of Congress responsible for the nation’s problems (Dent).

This boils down to an effort to “localize” the 2010 midterm elections by making November a choice between candidates rather than a statement on the direction of the country.

Second, Democratic candidates invariably promise to remind voters exactly who got the nation into its economic mess — former President George W. Bush and years of free-spending, regulation-cutting Republican Congresses.

Two Democrats in high-profile Senate races I interviewed earlier this year, New Hampshire Rep. Paul Hodes and Carnahan, repeated this line often and predicted that they will win because voters will remember who is responsible for the nation’s economic problems.

If there is one Republican candidate who would seem to be vulnerable to this one-two combination of punches, it is Ohio Republican Senate hopeful Rob Portman, who served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under Bush, as Bush’s trade representative and, before that, in Congress.

In bashing Bush, Buckeye State Democrats are scoring points against Portman.

Not everyone, however, is sure whether the Bush strategy will prove effective nationally or even in Ohio.

The Hotline’s Reid Wilson recently looked at a bipartisan NPR survey and concluded that, as a general rule, “Blaming Bush doesn’t work.”

But you need not rely on the NPR survey to conclude that. There is other evidence.

Last fall, New Jersey Democrats tried to shift the focus of the state’s gubernatorial race away from Obama and back to Bush in a state that Sen. John McCain lost by 15 points and Bush lost by 7 points in 2004. But it didn’t work.

A few months later, Democrats in Massachusetts were unsuccessful trying to blame Bush and Republicans for existing problems, and Republican Scott Brown won a Senate election in one of the most Democratic states in the nation.

History shows how difficult it is for the president’s party to pass on blame to an earlier administration. In 1982, Republicans lost more than two dozen House seats because of a recession that eventually pulled the country out of a stagflation that occurred during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Blaming Carter for the nation’s problems two years after voters threw him out of office didn’t work for Republicans in 1982, and it isn’t likely to work any better for Democrats this year.

Still, Ohio could be a unique case because of Portman’s credentials.

The problem both parties have in the Buckeye State is that each of the major-party candidates in the Senate race carries serious baggage.

Portman carries the Bush baggage, while Democrat Lee Fisher, the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, was selected by Gov. Ted Strickland (D) to be the state’s director of development — essentially the state’s job czar.

If “jobs” and “the economy” are problems for Portman, they would seem to be even bigger problems for Fisher, who is now in office.

Ohio’s unemployment rate in January 2007, when Strickland and Fisher took over the state’s top two jobs, was 5.4 percent. In January 2009, when Obama was sworn in as president, the state’s unemployment rate had risen to 8.6 percent. And in the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, Ohio’s unemployment rate for May 2010 stood at 10.7 percent.

Recent polling in the Ohio Senate race is very close, generally within the margin of error. That makes the contest much closer than it was in the first quarter of this year, when Fisher held a substantial lead over Portman in hypothetical ballot tests.

Clearly, Fisher has been hurt by the economy, much as Obama has been hurt politically. The question is whether he can shift the blame away from himself and to Portman and Bush. It will be a much tougher task than Ohio Democrats are now willing to admit.