Ohio 5: GOP Tries to Avoid Unpleasant Surprise in Ohio Special

by Stuart Rothenberg December 12, 2007 · 11:05 PM EST

Note: This columned appeared in Monday’s Roll Call, the day before the special election.

The reliably Republican nature of Ohio’s 5th district would seem to make it an unlikely target for Democrats, but a target it is in Tuesday’s special election.

And while political operatives from both parties scramble to downplay expectations, there is more than enough evidence to conclude that the race to fill the seat of the late Rep. Paul Gillmor (R) is going down to the wire.

Republican Bob Latta, who should, under normal circumstances, win the race rather easily, finds himself in an uncomfortably competitive race against Democrat Robin Weirauch, who already has lost two bids for Congress in the district.

A nasty Republican primary, during which the Club for Growth ran TV ads attacking Latta, combined with the political environment in the Buckeye State that one GOP political observer described as “very toxic,” has some Republicans privately expressing the fear that their party could lose a seat that it should not be forced to worry about.

While a mid-November GOP poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for Latta showed him at 50 percent of the vote and leading Weirauch by 14 points, both parties are spending heavily in the race.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started the fight by putting $150,000 behind TV spots in the district. The ads attempted to paint Latta as ethically challenged, including one ad that linked him to two discredited Ohio Republicans, former Gov. Bob Taft and fundraiser Tom Noe.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which has little money in the bank and trails the DCCC’s fundraising badly this cycle, responded by putting $300,000 into TV and print advertising attacking Weirauch. Both parties have put in additional resources recently, so that total DCCC spending has approached $244,000 while NRCC spending is around $383,000, according to pre-election Federal Election Commission reports.

Given the Republicans’ cash-poor position — $2.5 million on hand through October compared with the DCCC’s $29.2 million — and their desire not to expend resources in a district that is normally considered safe for them, the NRCC’s actions strongly suggest that the committee believes the seat is at risk.

Democratic insiders have not claimed that their party’s nominee is ahead and insist the DCCC is spending cash primarily to force the NRCC to do the same. But the DCCC is not spending its resources in Virginia’s 1st district, which also is the site of a special election Tuesday, and the NRCC almost certainly would not have spent as heavily as it has if Republican strategists thought the DCCC was throwing its money away in Ohio.

A smart Democrat who is following the race closely told me recently that given the uncertainty about who will vote in the special election, it really doesn’t matter whether Weirauch is ahead or behind by a few points in late polling. “It’s all about turnout,” the Democrat said.

And that’s exactly why Republicans have pounded Weirauch as a liberal in the campaign’s final days. The Democrat, who is backed by EMILY’s List, is far better off if the election is about Latta, divisions in the GOP ranks, the war in Iraq or popular Gov. Ted Strickland (D), than if it is about her.

One savvy Republican agreed that the outcome rests primarily on turnout.

“If Republican voters stay home, [Latta] will get beat,” the GOP observer said. “Are Republican voters so depressed that they won’t show up to vote? How angry are the supporters of [GOP primary loser state Sen. Steve] Buehrer? Are they willing to sit back and let her win so that he can beat her next time?”

Democrats acknowledge that President Bush remains personally popular in the district, though they note that even in the district that he carried in 2000 and 2004 with 61 percent, a majority of voters are critical of his job performance.

And it is the district’s fundamental bent and the GOP’s activity that has Democratic insiders cautious about their party’s chances of pulling off an upset.

As one Democrat who is following the race closely said, “We have a field operation, television ads, mail, a governor’s visit and everything else [that is necessary to win]. But it’s still a Republican district, and there are a lot of people in suits staying at the Hampton Inn in Bowling Green. They probably are Republicans, because people don’t normally wear suits in Bowling Green.”

Democrats are at a distinct partisan disadvantage in the district, but specific circumstances of the special election, from the electorate’s mood to the divisive Republican primary, are just what they had hoped for. That has forced the NRCC to spend heavily simply to defend a normally safe seat. We’ll know soon whether Republicans have succeeded.