By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
GRANVILLE, Ohio, Sept. 26 -- Joy Padgett, the GOP's new congressional candidate in Ohio, has been in a jam when it comes to finding a big-name Republican who could come to town and bring more than trouble.
Gov. Bob Taft? He was convicted of illegally accepting gifts. GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell? He is getting trounced in the polls. Bob Ney, the current congressman? He admitted taking bribes and then checked himself in for alcohol rehabilitation.
This helps explains Padgett's excitement Tuesday as her lunchtime guest of honor took to the podium outside the historic Granville Inn. It was first lady Laura Bush. The president's approval ratings may be in the drain, but the first lady still regularly scores in the high sixties. She was in town to raise money for Padgett, and to offer the candidate at least a one-day respite from the troubles that her radioactive party affiliation is causing in Ohio's 18th District.
"Joy, who as I just told you was a schoolteacher for 20 years, owns custom-made brass knuckles," the first lady tells an overflow crowd of people who contributed between $100 and $1,000 to Padgett to attend the event. "When Joy says she's a tough campaigner and that she will fight for the people of Ohio, she really means it."
Padgett could use the endorsement. Earlier this month, she won the GOP primary to replace Ney on the November ballot in a district that, under normal circumstances, Republicans win comfortably. But Zack Space, the Democratic candidate, sometimes seems like the least of her problems.
"I am not going to downplay it: Voters are skeptical of everything" in the current political climate, Padgett said in an interview.
Democrats are pressing the scandal issue relentlessly, and it appears to be working with some voters. Vicki Sugar, a Granville resident who attended the Bush fundraiser, said: "This is the first time I have ever felt like I wanted to back out. Does it really matter if I vote Democrat and Republican?"
In a year when Republicans are battling low poll numbers nationally, there are few places where the GOP brand is more scuffed than in Ohio, where, since President Bush's election-night triumph here two years ago, national and local scandals have polluted the political atmosphere for GOP candidates.
A poll released this week by the Columbus Dispatch indicated Democrats could sweep races for U.S. Senate as well as Ohio governor, auditor, treasurer and secretary of state. This would be a remarkable turnaround after 16 years in which Republicans have enjoyed uninterrupted control of the governorship and dominated most statewide races.
In House races, Deborah Pryce, the fourth-ranking Republican leader, is facing the toughest race of her career and Padgett, battling in a district President Bush carried with 57 percent of the vote in 2004, is regarded as far from a lock to succeed Ney.
Nationally, it is the Iraq war, excessive spending and other issues that analysts generally regard as the root of the GOP's problems. In the Ohio River Valley, however, troubles can also be attributed to missteps and scandals at the state level. In Indiana, Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. infuriated voters by privatizing a toll road -- turning the work over to foreign companies -- and trying to adjust the time zone. In Kentucky, Gov. Ernie Fletcher has been dogged by a hiring scandal. They are two of the least popular governors in the country -- and they do nothing but harm GOP candidates in their states.
Padgett, a 59-year-old state lawmaker from Coshocton, is trying to force the debate away from her party's problems toward policy issues such as immigration that she hopes will offer more favorable terrain. "I am a first-generation -- legal -- American," she said. She supports House legislation to tighten border security and says illegal immigrants should be forced to leave. "They have to come back legally," she said.
Padgett, who has represented 14 of the district's 16 counties, is counting on voters to overlook her self-described "casual" and "not social" relationship with the prison-bound Ney.
"Democrats want to make a lot out of it because they need an issue," she said. "He might be a factor if people chose for him to be."
This is the kind of district Republicans usually dominate in state politics. The Ohio 18th, a mix of small-town farms and mines, stretches from Appalachia to the Columbus suburbs. Margaret Jensen, from nearby Newark, said the GOP troubles are "unfortunate." But she quickly added: "We are die-hard Republicans. We'll never go over to the other side, no matter what."
Space, a 45-year-old lawyer, said the Ohio Republican party and the Iraq war have softened many "nevers" into "maybes." His strategy is to link the GOP hopeful with the GOP congressman so that voters will see "Padgett" on the ballot and think "Ney."
The Democratic candidate said that while he has been trying for months to focus voters' attention on the ethical transgressions committed by Ney, it was not until the lawmaker's recent agreement to plead guilty that it hit home. "The reaction among constituents is that he lied to them," said Space. "It constitutes a betrayal."
Space said voters now are beginning to understand that Ney's actions are not simply the result of one bad seed but rather are indicative of the stranglehold special interests have on the Republican majority. "It is a manifestation of something more malicious," the candidate said.
And, though Padgett rarely mentions Ney by name, Space is convinced that her ties to the legislator will complicate her campaign. Space said that Ney "anointed" Padgett as his replacement. She has said that is not true -- but she has to deny it over and over, underscoring the predicament of Republicans in a year when bad breaks outnumber good by a wide margin.
Washingtonpost.com videographer Chet Rhodes contributed to this report.