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Ohio Republican Senate Seat in Jeopardy

October 19, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill has our Ohio report.

SEN. MIKE DEWINE (R), Ohio: How are you? OK, what did you have, a little sauerkraut there or…

OHIO RESIDENT: Sauerkraut Sunday.

SEN. MIKE DEWINE: Sauerkraut Sunday?

GWEN IFILL: In any other election year, Republican Senator Mike DeWine would not have to be hunting for votes at the Waynesville, Ohio, Sauerkraut Festival.

OHIO RESIDENT: Potatoes, sauerkraut, olives, cheddar cheese…

SEN. MIKE DEWINE: Good to see you. Thank you for inviting me.

GWEN IFILL: But this is no ordinary year for DeWine or for Ohio. Corruption scandals, a depressed state economy, a divided Republican Party all have combined to cast significant storm clouds over DeWine’s political future.

So why is this race so close?

SEN. MIKE DEWINE: The race is close because Ohio’s a competitive state. I mean, look at the last couple of presidential campaigns. We were a state that for years elected John Glenn, Howard Metzenbaum at the same time we were voting for a Republican presidents and sometimes Republican governors. When I was elected, I was the first Republican to be elected to the Senate in a quarter of a century. So it’s a competitive state.

GWEN IFILL: But it wasn’t so hard for you last time.

SEN. MIKE DEWINE: No, but obviously we have different situations today. You know, we’ve had scandals in the statehouse in Washington or in the statehouse in Columbus, and that’s been a problem. The president’s popularity is certainly not what it was. The Republican governor’s popularity is not where it should be. So there are issues there.

Brown targets disillusioned

GWEN IFILL: Those issues have made DeWine a ripe target this election season. And the man holding the bow and arrow is Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown, running hard to take down the incumbent. Brown is hammering home a liberal message aimed at union members, disaffected independents, and even disillusioned Republicans.

REP. SHERROD BROWN (D), Senate Candidate: Conservatives understand that Mike DeWine and others in Washington have betrayed conservative principles. They've taken budget surpluses as far as the eye can see and blown a hole in the federal budget. And conservatives understand that these people haven't delivered for them, and they're willing to give progressives like me a chance to help change the direction of this state and this country.

GWEN IFILL: Gene Beaupre, a political scientist at Cincinnati's Xavier University, says these issues work against DeWine.

GENE BEAUPRE, Xavier University: Not any one of those things is the death blow, but all of them are certainly body blows that make this, you know, a race where both sides -- or a state where, you know, there can be competitive races.

GWEN IFILL: To survive, DeWine is counting on his most loyal supporters to stick with him in this, his toughest race ever.

So how does this race look like so far?

BOB ASHBROOK, Ohio Resident: Well, it's going to be really tight, but of course I'm pulling for DeWine.

GWEN IFILL: Why?

BOB ASHBROOK: Well, I think DeWine is really a good family man. I think he really, really has feelings for the people that he serves.

Moderate Republicans may stay home

GWEN IFILL: Yet three separate voter surveys released this week show Brown surging ahead by seven to 14 points. For Republicans in Ohio, statewide races are won and lost from here in Columbus south to the Kentucky border, but this year not all Republicans can agree on how to win.

One example: Columbus attorney Charles "Rocky" Saxbe, the prominent son of a former attorney general and a former state legislator himself. Although a diehard Republican and DeWine supporter, he's jumped ship on the governor's race to back Democrat Ted Strickland. He says Ken Blackwell, his party's choice for governor, is so conservative that his campaign is hurting DeWine, who has earned a reputation in Washington as someone who will work across party lines.

ROCKY SAXBE, Columbus Attorney: That is unfortunate that a person who understands the importance of consensus, of working with Democrats as well as with the Republican majority in the Senate, is going to be handicapped by his own party because he isn't too blue or too red or whatever color you want to choose.

OHIO RESIDENT: Are you a Christian?

SEN. MIKE DEWINE: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

OHIO RESIDENT: Do you have Jesus in your heart?

SEN. MIKE DEWINE: Yes.

OHIO RESIDENT: Good.

GWEN IFILL: The difficult political climate in a state that went for President Bush in 2000 and 2004 has spread to endanger congressional incumbents like Deborah Pryce, whose opponent, Mary Jo Kilroy, has called the contest "a knife fight." Saxbe says some ticket-splitting moderate Republicans may just stay home.

ROCKY SAXBE: I'm going to be a Republican after November 7th no matter what they say, but I may be the exception to that rule. I may be willing to maintain my loyalty to the party, but others who are being disenfranchised may not do that.

GWEN IFILL: And that could cost you.

ROCKY SAXBE: And that could cost Mike DeWine votes, Deb Pryce votes, and I'm hoping that's not the case. And I'm doing everything I can to help them and other Republican candidates.

GWEN IFILL: Another problem for Republicans: nearly two-thirds of Ohio voters say the state's economy is bad. Ohio, in fact, has lost 195,000 manufacturing jobs in the last five years. Keith Welsh, a Republican father of three, says this is why he may not support DeWine this time.

KEITH WELSH, Ohio Resident: You know, I worked at the Delphi plants. I've worked at the General Motors plants. And there's, you know, been a lot of jobs cuts, a lot of jobs lost to foreign countries, so -- and not a whole lot of job creation. You know, you've got to blame somebody, so you either blame the governor or you blame the senators. You've got to take a look at what he's going to hold for the future of Ohio.

Frustrations of the middle class

REP. STEPHANIE TUBBS JONES (D), Ohio: How are you?

GWEN IFILL: Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones says voters are paying attention to corruption scandals involving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, convicted Congressman Bob Ney, Ohio Governor Bob Taft, and disgraced Florida Congressman Mark Foley, all Republicans.

REP. STEPHANIE TUBBS JONES: That's a cumulative effect. You know, you have Abramoff, you have Bob Ney, you have a governor who has been convicted of misdemeanors, you have the investment of workers compensation dollars in rare coins. And you add to that a member of Congress, Republican, who has been engaged allegedly in sending e-mails to young pages, so that's a cumulative effect that I think it has an impact.

Enough is enough! Can you say it with me? Enough is enough!

GWEN IFILL: Sherrod Brown is counting on Democrats like these, the kind who turn up at pancake breakfasts on Sunday mornings, to rally the faithful and, more important, to turn out the vote on Election Day.

REP. SHERROD BROWN: As Ohio goes in 2006, so goes the nation in 2008.

GWEN IFILL: But it is the here and now that seems to consume voters across party lines. Margaret Wienholts is a Democrat from Cincinnati.

MARGARET WIENHOLTS, Ohio Resident: I'm very unhappy. Everyday, you know, you listen on the news and they said "violence is escalating"? Well, hello? It's been that, you know? And they need to really change it.

GWEN IFILL: John and Connie Hanna are Republicans from Hillsboro.

JOHN HANNA, Ohio Resident: There seems to be a genuine lack of respect for some people in Middle America, for the people who are, you know, the middle class of the country. The politicians seem genuinely more concerned with maintaining power than doing what's right for the nation and for the citizens.

DONNIE HANNA, Ohio Resident: I agree. I think we're looking for a change, and part of that change may be that some Republicans that have been there in the Senate for years are not going to be going back, because right now we're very frustrated.

GWEN IFILL: Brown's goal: to tap into those frustrations.

ALI KINNEY, Ohio Resident: I'm no one but a voter. And I am your typical middle class -- my husband and I both work. We cannot afford to put our middle child through college.

We need to do something about that. We need to give college credits to the working-class family.

Finishing the race

GWEN IFILL: If DeWine's campaign has the feel of an incumbent stroll, Brown's more closely resembles an eager sprint.

So this is a "throw the bums out" kind of year?

REP. SHERROD BROWN: I think it's a "throw the bums out" kind of year, because of the arrogance of power, because of one-party government, and because this crowd in Washington, Mike DeWine and others, and this crowd in Columbus have betrayed middle-class Ohioans.

GWEN IFILL: DeWine is well-aware that some national Republicans appear to have already written him off.

Can you win this without their support?

SEN. MIKE DEWINE: We're going to win. We're going to win the race, because Ohioans understand what's at stake. They understand what I've done. And I think they also understand that Congressman Brown, with all due respect, is on the fringe even of his own party.

GWEN IFILL: So it's about defining Sherrod Brown, not selling Mike DeWine?

SEN. MIKE DEWINE: Oh, I think it's a little of both. It's always a little of both.

GWEN IFILL: Brown once wrote that Democrats lost the House majority in 1994 because "we were blamed for everything the voters did not like." DeWine is working to make sure history does not flip parties and repeat itself.