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In Close Races, Local Issues Still Dominate

By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 29, 2006

MORGANTOWN, W.Va., Sept. 28 -- Spend nine days traveling through one of this year's most contested political regions and there is no mistaking the mood of voters: They are angry.

Nor is there any doubting the mood of incumbent politicians: They are anxious.

But it is a mistake to assume that anger and anxiety look and sound the same in these coveted precincts as they do in Washington.

The debates over Iraq and President Bush shadow virtually every competitive race, but they do not dominate the conversation -- which suits many Democrats just fine. This month's intense debate over policy toward terrorism detainees, meanwhile, carried hardly any echo at all.

Here is what has people talking in Kentucky's 3rd District: a new bridge over the Ohio River that would ease traffic for Louisville residents. In Indiana, voters are plenty steamed -- over the Republican governor's decision to privatize a toll road that runs through or near the seats of three embattled GOP representatives.

In Ohio's 6th District, visitors are likely to get an earful about what might be called earmark-envy: Why residents of neighboring West Virginia are getting a bigger slice of the federal budget pie.

The Washington Post logged a thousand miles traveling up the Ohio River Valley, where nine of the nation's most competitive House districts are clustered in a continuous line. The trip began in the tobacco fields of Kentucky and ended in this college town. Interviews with voters, candidates and operatives made plain why the old line about all politics being local is a truism: It really is true.

This is not to say the Ohio River Valley is insulated from national debates. They are clearly contributing to the uneasy mood evident in so many places along the dividing line of the upper South and industrial Midwest, even if that mood is often expressed in highly individualistic ways. Virtually every Republican candidate said they are concerned about what a sour electorate means for them on Nov. 7.

"I have never seen such anxiety," said Joy Padgett, a Republican running for the Ohio seat being vacated by GOP Congressman Robert W. Ney, who has pleaded guilty to corruption charges growing from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. "I believe that spills over onto the skepticism about virtually everything."

This free-floating angst, she lamented, is influencing attitudes about the economy, terrorism and politics in general.

If voters' snappishness is unmistakable, its impact remains far from clear. Take Laurie Pitcock. She lives in Ney's district and said she is dismayed by Republican inaction on environmental issues and other matters. Even so, she said, "I am still proud to be a Republican."

Her reaction was a commonplace one in these nine districts -- people expressed disgust with the Republican leadership in Washington but not necessarily toward the Republicans representing them.

Against this ambiguous backdrop, Republicans and Democrats are pursuing two very different strategies in this region.

Republicans all seem to be reading out of the same playbook. To a person, they seek to localize the elections, and accuse Democrats of wanting to raise taxes and put liberals -- a bad word in these culturally conservative districts -- in charge of Congress. Voters are seeing a lot more of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in GOP-sponsored television ads than of President Bush.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, for instance, is hitting Democrat Brad Ellsworth -- an antiabortion and anti-gun-control candidate in Indiana's 8th District -- for helping support an "extreme liberal."

"How can he possibly stop their liberal agenda?" the NRCC asks in an ad blanketing the district. Similar ads are popping up in other races.

There is one hitch in this strategy. Unlike in some past elections, Democrats have picked the kinds of candidates who have shown that they can win in heartland districts. Their positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and other fault-line issues are often indistinguishable from Republicans'.

Ellsworth has jumped out to a double-digit lead over GOP Rep. John N. Hostettler while running ads that highlight his social conservatism. "I fit the district well," Ellsworth said when asked the secret of his success. "People appreciate my conservative values."

The Democratic strategy differs from district to district but features one common theme: a need for change.

That appeal takes many forms, but in the Ohio River Valley races it is focused especially on the nation's energy policies. Democrats argue that Republicans have sold out the country for campaign cash from oil and gas companies -- a move they say led to soaring prices at the pump.

"The government should not be subsidizing the most profitable corporations in the history of the world," said Cincinnati City Council member John Cranley, who is running against Rep. Steve Chabot (R). That argument might have been more effective, however, when gas prices were topping $3 a gallon. They have since dropped by almost a dollar in some places.

Particularly in the rural districts, Democrats and Republicans sound alike when discussing Iraq. They lament strategic errors but oppose a speedy withdrawal. But Democrats cite the war as evidence that a divided government is essential to imposing accountability on the White House.

In Kentucky, Ken Lucas, a former Democratic representative seeking to return to his old job, repeatedly criticizes first-term Rep. Geoff Davis (R) for voting with Bush more than 95 percent of time. "You can send a robot to vote the party line," Lucas said -- twice. Because the two candidates differ on few issues, Lucas said, his race is likely to come down to voters' desire to shake up Washington.

That anti-Washington message has real resonance in this part of the country, where anyone who carries a Washington aura -- including out-of-town reporters -- is viewed skeptically at first.

This is also a region where memories run long. Former Kentucky state Senate president Joe Prather is a case in point. Prather, the Democratic candidate in the 1994 special election in Kentucky 's 2nd District, refused to be interviewed last week because of lingering resentment about a story written by The Post 12 years before that he believes cost him the seat in Congress. Mike Weaver, the Democratic candidate in this year's race in that district, said he did not much trust the Washington media either.

Though the campaigns have been jousting for months, it is clear in interviews that, six weeks before Election Day, most voters are just starting to tune in. Good luck to those who want to tune out. In Louisville, where the television market reaches into three competitive races, it is not uncommon while watching the evening news to see a cascade of political ads, uninterrupted by pitches for cars or soap.

Back in Ohio, as in other places, the air wars have a partisan edge, often aimed at voters who insist this is not how they want elections to be waged. "I'd love to get beyond party lines and get things done," said voter Laurie Pitcock -- a wish not likely to be granted between now and Nov. 7.

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