Road Trip Along the Ohio River: Nine Races to Watch

by Stuart Rothenberg May 1, 2006 · 12:04 AM EDT

The fight for the House of Representatives could be determined in nine adjacent districts in four states, stretching from West Virginia to Indiana. It’s an easy car trip, stretching fewer than 500 miles. Just follow the Ohio River.

The races are a diverse bunch, with contests involving veteran Republican incumbents, GOP freshmen, an open seat and even one Democratic incumbent.

This swath of prime campaign territory starts in Parkersburg, W.Va., right across the river from Ohio. It’s West Virginia’s 1st district — historically Democratic territory that went 57 percent for President Bush in 2004.

The incumbent, Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan, suddenly finds himself a major GOP target for November. Republicans have suddenly grown optimistic about the prospects of their candidate, state Rep. Chris Wakim, who just benefited from a fundraising event with Vice President Cheney. Given questions about Mollohan’s wealth and ethics, Republicans believe that they will be able to turn the Democrats’ “culture of corruption” message against one of their own.

Just across the river in Ohio is the state’s 6th district, a Democratic open seat being targeted by Republicans. State Sen. Charlie Wilson (D) appeared to be the early favorite to win the race, but he didn’t submit enough valid signatures to secure a spot on the primary ballot, so he’s running a massive write-in effort with the help of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

GOP state Rep. Chuck Blasdel is a serious general election contender, and while the state Republican Party has some serious image problems right now, Wilson’s ballot troubles give Republicans a serious chance for a takeover.

Next door, in Ohio’s 18th district, Rep. Bob Ney (R) isn’t merely in trouble — his political career is on life support.

Democrats will have a competitive primary to pick their nominee, and whoever it is will become the frontrunner for November. Ney’s problems, which include a far-too-close relationship with discredited lobbyist Jack Abramoff, play right into Democrats’ national message.

But some insiders continue to whisper that Ney could drop out of the race after he wins his primary, thus giving his party an opportunity to select a nominee who lacks his political baggage. Given the Republican bent of the district, that development would significantly improve the GOP’s chances of retaining the seat.

Next, head southwest toward Maysville, Ky., in the state’s 4th district. It’s a heavily Republican seat occupied by freshman Rep. Geoff Davis (R). Davis ordinarily would be considered safe, but his opponent is former Rep. Ken Lucas, a popular conservative Democrat.

A Democratic wave in November is likely to punish Republican incumbents representing Democratic districts. But the question is whether Lucas will be able to convince Republican voters to fire one of their own, even if that leads to Democrats taking control of Congress. The answer is unknown, but the race bears watching.

From Maysville, follow the Ohio River west, crossing over into Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati. That’s Ohio’s 1st district, home to Rep. Steve Chabot, a six-term Republican who has coasted to re-election in his past two races.

Chabot’s likely opponent this year, Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley, drew 45 percent against Chabot in 2000, and he is likely to be an even more formidable challenger this year. Democrats hope that the combination of Republican problems on the national and state levels will help Cranley ride a wave to victory in November.

Cross back into Kentucky and head southwest along the Ohio River until you hit Louisville. Now you will be in Kentucky’s 3rd district, a swing seat held since 1996 by Rep. Anne Northup (R).

Democrats couldn’t get a top-tier challenger to Northup, and they won’t have a nominee until after the May 16 Democratic primary. But the district is definitely competitive, leaving the Congresswoman vulnerable to a Democratic wave. Northup has proved she is one of the best campaigners in Congress, but that may not matter if the midterm election is a referendum on Bush and on change.

When you leave Louisville, proceed southwest along the Ohio River toward Owensboro, Ky., and GOP Rep. Ron Lewis’ 2nd district. Democrats have recruited state Rep. Mike Weaver, 67, a retired Army officer and a moderate-to-conservative Democrat, to take on Lewis. The Congressman hasn’t had a serious race in years, and Democrats see this district as evidence that they are “broadening the playing field.”

Across the river from Owensboro is Indiana’s 9th district, one of the Democrats’ top opportunities in the nation.

Freshman Rep. Mike Sodrel (R) faces the man he beat two years ago (and lost to in 2002), former Rep. Baron Hill (D). Early polling shows Hill leading, but the district does lean Republican, and voters already have fired Hill once. Still, Sodrel won by only 1,425 votes last time, so it won’t take much to flip the district back to Hill this time.

Finally, head west to Evansville and Indiana’s 8th district. Republican Rep. John Hostettler is always a Democratic target, in part because his district is competitive and in part because he refuses to raise money to finance his re-election campaigns. The district is culturally conservative but politically competitive, and the Democrats have their strongest challenger yet in Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth.

The Ohio River has become a focal point of American politics recently, and that isn’t likely to change this year. And that makes the Parkersburg-to-Evansville trip worth taking.