A Forfeited Battleground District
Since National GOP Pulled Out, Democrat in Ohio 6th Seems to Have Votes to Spare

By Chris Cillizza and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 28, 2006

CALDWELL, Ohio -- Four months ago, state Sen. Charlie Wilson (D) was teetering on the edge of defeat in his campaign for Ohio's open 6th District. Today he is strolling toward Nov. 7, when, if current trends continue, he will be elected to Congress.

No television ads for Wilson or his Republican opponent, state Rep. Chuck Blasdel, are airing. For the moment, the national party organizations, which swarm into the most competitive races, are nowhere to be found.

And Wilson's schedule is not exactly full. His only public event so far this week was a dinner for the Noble County Democratic Party on Tuesday night here in rural southeastern Ohio.

"We don't hear anything" from national Republicans, Wilson said as he relaxed amid the red-white-and-blue bunting that decorated the tables at the Noble County Community Center. "We are very happy they are looking elsewhere."

This is a race the 2006 midterm elections forgot. The seat in the pastures and Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio has been held for a decade by Rep. Ted Strickland, who this year is the Democrats' nominee for governor. His departure once tantalized Republicans, who regarded this seat -- carried narrowly by President Bush in 2004 -- as their most promising chance to take a congressional seat from the Democratic column.

Some promise. Blasdel's campaign never gained much traction after Wilson, considered the strongest of three contenders, won the Democratic primary in May.

Like any game, politics tends to be more fun on offense than defense. Republicans are not having much fun this election season.

While Democrats have targets around the country where they could gain a seat, Republicans have the barest handful.

A combination of an adverse national environment and the need to devote their resources to defending at-risk GOP incumbents gives the national party few opportunities to invest heavily in challengers, such as Blasdel, who face an uphill fight.

Ask Republicans where they see takeover opportunities this fall and they will rattle off seats such as Georgia's 8th District -- held by Rep. Jim Marshall -- Iowa's 3rd or even the open at-large seat in strongly Democratic Vermont. But none of those races look particularly dire for Democrats at the moment, as many Republican strategists privately acknowledge.

Republicans' receding chances in the Ohio 6th provide a microcosm of this trend.

For much of 2005, Blasdel, the second-ranking Republican in the Ohio House, was the golden boy of GOP recruitment efforts. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.) regularly singled out him as a star in the making and the 6th District as a pickup opportunity.

Republicans' optimism only increased after Wilson did not collect the necessary signatures to qualify for the primary ballot, necessitating a write-in candidacy. Sensing opportunity, the Republican Congressional Committee poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the district in hopes of killing Wilson's candidacy. Television ads accused Wilson of supporting the dumping of raw sewage in the Ohio River, among other not-so-nice allegations.

The strategy backfired. Wilson, who knocked on 40,000 doors and sent out 4,000 personal letters during the primary race, rolled up 66 percent of the vote, winning 4,500 votes more than the four Republican candidates combined.

"To do that is unheard of," said Noble County Democratic Party Chairman Larry Woodford. Republicans "saw the writing on the wall."

It certainly looks that way. After Wilson's win, Blasdel went from hot to "who?" in the eyes of many Republicans.

The 6th District "on paper does look like it should be competitive," Wilson said. Certainly, judging by the pickup trucks in the parking lot and camouflage on the attendees at the Noble County gathering, this is not a typical Democratic stronghold.

Most Democrats in this part of the world are conservative on social issues such as abortion and guns, and tend to identify more with Larry the Cable Guy than with Larry David. "Southeastern Ohio is Appalachia," said Woodford. "A lot of people don't want to say that, but it is."

Wilson, like Strickland, has so far been able to bridge that cultural divide between local and national Democrats. Instead, he is emphasizing his conservative credentials and past service for the area.

A poll conducted for his campaign last month shows that the strategy has been effective, as Wilson led Blasdel 49 percent to 25 percent. Blasdel campaign manager Ryan Stenger conceded that the Democrat is ahead at the moment but added that his candidate is seeing monthly improvements in private polling. "Things are definitely getting better," Stenger said. "We definitely have our challenges ahead of us."

Still, the Republican Congressional Committee has not promised an end-of-the-campaign advertising blitz that earlier this year seemed a given. Stenger argued that once the national party is satisfied with where its incumbents stand, the money will begin to flow to offensive opportunities in open seats.

In the meantime, Blasdel plans to capitalize on lower gas prices -- they have dropped below $2 in some parts of the district -- and the stock market, which is nearing a new high. "The other side will be caught napping on this one," promised Stenger.

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