IN OHIO, THE DEMOCRATS' prospects for 2006 may be worse than the Republicans'. And that's saying something, given the magnitude of the GOP's problems in the state.
The Republican governor is the scandal-plagued Bob Taft, whose approval rating is below 20 percent, and each of Ohio's two Republican senators has recently strained his relations with the conservative base. George Voinovich blocked the Senate confirmation of John Bolton, forcing a recess appointment; and Mike DeWine joined the Gang of 14, the bipartisan group of senators who entered into an agreement to break the impasse over the filibustering of judicial nominees. Adding to conservative woes, Republican Jean Schmidt eked out only a narrow victory in the special election in the Second Congressional District last August, a seat that is normally safe for the GOP.
DeWine, who is up for reelection next year, expects a tough race. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll showed him trailing antiwar Iraq veteran Paul Hackett--the same Democrat who nearly defeated Schmidt--42 percent to 41 percent. But the Democrats' disunity may save the incumbent. Although Hackett began campaigning for the Senate almost immediately after the special election, he isn't a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. He's facing an uphill primary battle against Rep. Sherrod Brown, who initially had promised Hackett he would stay out of the race.
Hackett is the first Iraq war veteran to seek national office. He favors a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops but says he does not regret his decision to serve. This makes him a powerful symbol for Democrats who oppose the war but want to appear strong on national security. He is also a member of the NRA, disagreeing with most of his party on Second Amendment issues. As for social issues, in an interview with Salon, Hackett modified a Bill Clinton phrase to sum up his views on abortion: "Until education eliminates it, it must remain safe, legal, and rare." At the same time, he favors gay marriage, and in the same interview he said of social conservatives, "They've got more in common with Osama bin Laden than I've got with them."
Sherrod Brown is a more conventional liberal. According to the Almanac of American Politics, his ratings on economic, social, and foreign policy issues place him somewhat to the left of fellow Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich. In the last Congress, Brown voted against funding the Iraq war, against a ban on same-sex marriage, against a ban on partial-birth abortion, and against a ban on human cloning.
Anyone campaigning against Brown could conceivably accuse him of being a liar and a thief: He broke his promise not to challenge Hackett, and last month Brown confessed to plagiarizing from a blogger in a letter he sent to the Senate. The previous month some fellow Democrats had accused Brown of employing campaign operatives who engaged in ethically questionable use of campaign funds.
Ohio Democratic activist and blogger Tim Russo is one who has made this charge. Brown employs as a full-time campaign consultant Jerome Armstrong, founder of the popular leftist blog MyDD and a close associate of Markos Moulitsas, operator of another leading leftist blog, Daily Kos. Russo accuses Armstrong of profiting from his position on Brown's staff by using campaign dollars to purchase campaign ads on his own website. In a phone interview Russo says, "The connection is almost incestuous. Sherrod Brown enters the race and suddenly drops all this cash on a blog campaign."
Armstrong has since taken leave of MyDD. But Russo still isn't happy. He says Armstrong is taking his leftist agenda from the blogosphere into Ohio. "They get away with things financially that are unbelievable," says Russo. "When they bring that stuff into my state, where they can't vote in the primary, I have a problem with that."
A neutral observer, William Beutler, who covers blogs for the National Journal's Hotline, says Armstrong's role is suspicious, but clear evidence of unethical activity is lacking. As Beutler puts it, "There was a concern that Armstrong was making money off the blogads he bought on behalf of Brown, but my reporting didn't support that. What profit there is goes to his co-bloggers. He sits on the board of BlogPAC with Moulitsas, but it seems almost entirely dormant."
Other Ohio Democrats had another problem with Brown's Internet ad campaign. In late October, Brown made a four-week online ad buy. The ad featured a smiling Brown and a link to "an open letter to the blogosphere" hinting at a Brown Senate run. A few days later, however, the ad changed. A picture of Hackett was digitally inserted, creating the image of a grinning Hackett facing Brown, who continued to look ahead--as if Brown were the candidate and Hackett a supporter. A new link directed readers to an ACT Blue fundraising site that promised to forward contributions to the eventual Democratic nominee.
Beutler credits Armstrong for eventually disassociating himself from the ad campaign, but says Armstrong may still cost Brown some Ohio voters. Russo is one. "Right now I'm leaning undecided because I don't like how Sherrod Brown is playing ball," he says. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have given Paul Hackett a second thought."
Mike DeWine's reelection is far from certain. Taft and President Bush's low approval ratings may be dragging down his numbers. Nonetheless, developments may continue to work in his favor. While DeWine initially angered some conservatives by joining the Gang of 14, the fallout of that episode appears more detrimental to the left. John Roberts sailed through his Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court, and Samuel Alito appears to have a solid footing as well. As National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Ronayne said in a phone interview, "With the Gang of 14, Democrats lost a necessary tool in their plans for 2006. Now, it looks like Democrats have their own problems to sort out. We think Mike DeWine is in a good position for reelection."
Still unclear is whether DeWine will find himself running against an actual Iraq war veteran or a congressional Democrat who refused to fund that war.
Eric Pfeiffer reports for National Review Online.