Ohio Primary Paints Clearer November Picture

May 9, 2006 · 12:05 AM EDT

A handful of competitive races got a whole lot clearer on Tuesday when Ohio voters went to the polls in their primary. And for the most part, Democrats remain well positioned to take advantage of Republican ineptness.

Of course even though the nominees have been chosen, these races are far from over. But the landscape in Ohio favors the Democrats and they are hoping to hit the bull’s-eye in the Buckeye State come November.

Ohio Governor. Secretary of State Ken Blackwell defeated state Attorney General Jim Petro 56%-44% in the GOP primary. Conservatives nationwide rallied around the African-American officeholder in an expensive and bitter race. Meanwhile, Congressman Ted Strickland (D) coasted to his party’s nomination with 79% of the vote. Even though the Democratic race was significantly less competitive, only about 50,000 fewer Democrats cast their ballot in the gubernatorial primary than in the GOP contest (794,748-749,064).

A February 2-3 Zogby International poll showed Strickland leading Blackwell by a slim 38%-35%. But given that Blackwell is a statewide elected official and Strickland only represents one-eighteenth of the state in Congress, Strickland is the candidate with room to grow. More importantly, the survey showed that 64% of respondents believe Ohio was headed in the wrong direction and only 16% gave out-going Republican Gov. Bob Taft an excellent or good job approval rating. Those are worse numbers than President Bush.

Before the primary, this race was Lean Takeover for the Democrats. And now that Blackwell is the Republican nominee, it’s still Lean Takeover for the Democrats.

Ohio 2nd District. Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (R) held back a strong challenge from former Congressman Bob McEwen (R), whom she defeated in last summer’s special election to replace Congressman Rob Portman (R). This race was very nasty and personal, and in the final days, McEwen’s campaign said Schmidt’s campaign was “imploding” and that according to their internal polling with only a week to go showed, “We expect this 5-7 point trend to hold and/or increase as May 2nd gets closer.” They were clearly looking at bad numbers and Schmidt prevailed 48%-42%.

So, even though Schmidt is hated by most Democrats because of her remarks on the House floor regarding Congressman Jack Murtha (PA), she is the heavy favorite to win reelection in November. President Bush won the 2nd District 64%-36% in 2004, and GOP primary voters outnumbered their Republican counterparts by over a 2-1 margin. This seat is currently Safe for the Republicans.

Ohio 4th District. After a brief scare, state Sen. Jim Jordan defeated banker Frank Gugleilmi easily, 50%-30%, in the GOP primary in western Ohio. Gugleilmi poured thousands of dollars of his own money into the race, making it a tight contest for a while, but Jordan and the Club for Growth struck back. Now, Jordan is the heavy favorite to win the seat being vacated by Congressman Mike Oxley (R). President Bush won the seat 65%-34% in 2004. This is a Safe Republican seat.

Ohio 6th District. This open seat, vacated by Congressman Strickland (D), is one of the most competitive races in the country. State Senator Charlie Wilson (D) couldn’t muster 50 valid signatures to get his name on the primary ballot. But he did mount an aggressive write-in campaign that earned him two-thirds of the vote and the Democratic nomination. The write-in effort was extremely costly (over $1 million between Wilson and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), but Wilson’s presence on the ballot in November is a boost for Democrats.

Republicans nominated state Rep. Chuck Blasdel (he received 49% in a four-way primary) in a district that President Bush won narrowly in 2004. But almost 69,000 Democrats voted in Tuesday’s primary compared to only about 37,500 Republicans. Blasdel is a credible candidate but The Rothenberg Political Report is moving the race from Pure Toss-Up to Toss-Up/Tilt Democratic.

Ohio 13th District. Depending on the results of the Democratic primary, Republicans were looking to buck the trend in Ohio. But former state Rep. Betty Sutton prevailed with 30% in the eight-candidate Democratic primary. Capri Cafaro, the Republicans’ preferred opponent, finished second with 25%, and former Cong. Tom Sawyer was third with 22%. Craig Foltin earned the Republican nomination with 37% in the five-way race, but faces an uphill battle in the northeast Ohio district that Kerry carried 56%-44% against President Bush. Foltin is the mayor of Lorain, the district’s largest city, but it’s tough overall. Democrat Favored.

Ohio 16th District. Congressman Ralph Regula (R) found himself in a surprising close primary contest. First elected in 1972, Regula hasn’t had a general election under 64% since then, yet he got only 57% against county commissioner Matt Miller on Tuesday in the GOP primary. It looks like Regula avoided his biggest threat (President Bush won the seat 54%-46% in 2004) and is heavily favored to win in November.

Ohio 18th District. If you only listened to supporters of Congressman Bob Ney (R), you would think he was just reelected to another two years in Congress. But the reality is much different. Once the polls closed, the congressman’s supporters passed along excerpts from National Journal’s Hotline blog, saying that Ney pulled a “solid two-thirds” of the primary vote. The last congressman to garner a solid two-thirds of the primary vote was Tom DeLay (R-TX) and he subsequently decided not to run for reelection.

The embarrassment of the night was not Charlie Wilson, but instead former Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer. Once the chosen nominee of national Democrats, Sulzer not only lost to Dover Law Director Zack Space, but he finished third behind former state board of education member Jennifer Stewart. Space took 39%, Stewart 25%, Sulzer 24%, and Ralph Applegate 12%.

Ney is already trying to pair Zack Space with the likes of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), George Soros, and even J.J. Cafaro, who pleaded guilty in 2001 to bribing Congressman Jim Traficant (D). But as long as Ney is on the ballot in November, the race will be a referendum on him. And with the current rumors linking him to discredited lobbyist Jack Abramoff, that’s not a good situation. Without Ney on the ballot, Republican chances improve dramatically in a district President Bush 57%-42% over Kerry. For now, this race is a Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on May 5, 2006.