By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Two years ago, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell was a driving force in the triumphant campaign for a state constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage. That helped cause a surge in turnout of "values voters," who helped deliver this pivotal state to President Bush's successful reelection effort.
As the Republican candidate for governor, Blackwell has been counting on values voters to do for him this year what they did for the party in 2004. But the culture wars are being eclipsed as a voting issue by economic worries and Republican scandals that have altered the political dynamic here in striking ways. Several polls find Blackwell trailing his Democratic opponent, five-term Rep. Ted Strickland, by double digits with less than four weeks to go until the Nov. 7 midterm elections.
The difficulty Blackwell is experiencing winning support for his socially conservative message reflects the anxiety evident this year among voters in Ohio and elsewhere, some pollsters say.
"It is harder to run on wedge issues when voters have huge concerns on their minds regarding war in Iraq, economic issues and a Congress they perceive as doing little," said Michael Bocian, a vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling firm in Washington.
Strickland, 65, an ordained but non-practicing minister, has built his lead by speaking about the economic distress of this manufacturing state and by painting his opponent as a loyal soldier of a scandal-plagued Ohio Republican Party. At the same time, he is directly challenging Blackwell for values voters in ways that many analysts believe Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry did not two years ago.
"What I call the bread-and-butter issues probably are more prominently on the minds of people today than two years ago," Strickland said in an interview. "I think a lot of Ohioans are feeling economically insecure. Consequently, they are less willing to be distracted by issues that don't involve the economic security of their families."
His observation is borne out by a recent survey by the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll, which found that 63 percent of likely voters in the state are basing their choice of candidates on the "issues" rather than "character." The poll found that seven in 10 Strickland supporters were most concerned about "issues," including the economy and education; just over half of Blackwell supporters felt that way.
"Character can be everything from a voters' evaluation of a series of issues as a package, to notions as to whether they think a candidate agrees or disagrees with their values," said Eric W. Rademacher, co-director of the survey. Two years ago, exit polls found that "moral values" edged out the "economy and jobs" to top a list of concerns that Ohio voters said most influenced their Election Day choices. The exit polls found that at least a quarter of voters identified themselves as born-again Christians, and three-quarters of their votes went to Bush.
Leaders of the religious right here promised to build on that success to reshape Ohio's political landscape. They pledged to support candidates determined to "bring spiritual revival and moral reformation to the state," in the words of Reformation Ohio, an evangelical outreach effort.
No one better embodied that promise than Blackwell. An experienced and articulate politician, he is given to quoting Scripture on the campaign trail and is unambiguous about his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. "I don't know how many of you have a farming background, but I can tell you right now that notion even defies barnyard logic," Blackwell has said of same-sex marriage.
As in 2004, conservative religious leaders have been registering thousands of voters across the state, talking from the pulpit about the need to vote and leading rallies to drum up enthusiasm among values voters.
"Politicians in Ohio certainly are focusing more on economic issues, but our focus is on encouraging members of our church and the Center for Moral Clarity to support the candidates that best reflect their values on issues of righteousness and justice," said Rod Parsley, a Columbus televangelist. Parsley is pastor of World Harvest Church, which has 12,000 members, and leads Reformation Ohio and the Center for Moral Clarity, another outreach group.
Parsley, who faces an Internal Revenue Service investigation prompted by a complaint by a group of ideologically moderate ministers who allege he has crossed a line barring political advocacy from the pulpit, has not endorsed Blackwell. But he is quick to add: "I'm sure Ohioans will recall which candidates have stood with them in the past."
So far, it seems that the efforts of Parsley and other evangelical leaders are being overshadowed by this state's recent record of job losses and the resultant economic concern. The unemployment rate in Ohio is 5.7 percent -- a full point above the national figure. Meanwhile, the Ohio Poll found that 82 percent of Ohioans believe that the economy is in poor or fair shape, and two-thirds say things are getting worse.
For his part, Blackwell, 58, has offered a string of proposals that he says would revive Ohio's economy. He wants to do away with the graduated state income tax and implement a flat tax. He has proposed looking at ways to de-couple school financing from local property taxes and cap educational administrative costs, while allowing students greater freedom to attend schools of their choice. "I think the big issues in the campaign are jobs, education and health care and getting our economy growing again so we can break out of the growth deficit we've been in," Blackwell said.
John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and a professor at the University of Akron, said that in this campaign Blackwell's biggest problem has not been his policy ideas but his arch-conservative profile. "Ohio leans to the right. But he is way to the right, and some Republicans are quite unhappy with his relationship with religious conservatives," Green said.
Strickland has advocated greater investment in public schools and has targeted state support for growing sectors of the Ohio economy. Meanwhile, he has brandished his own socially conservative credentials, including his support of gun ownership. Although he told the Dayton Daily News that he is now an occasional churchgoer, Strickland touts his background as a minister.
"When you have a candidate who is pretty conservative in Strickland, that makes drawing distinctions between the candidates difficult," Bocian said. Republicans control every statewide office in Ohio and both chambers of the legislature, but, given the voter pessimism this year, that is proving to be a political disadvantage. Then there are the scandals that have ensnared two of the leading Republicans in the state: Gov. Bob Taft was convicted of illegally accepting gifts, and Rep. Robert W. Ney admitted taking bribes in the Abramoff scandal and is not seeking reelection.
Through the years, Blackwell has worked to cultivate an image of independence, opposing state tax increases and supporting the ban on same-sex marriage, which both Taft and Sen. Mike DeWine (R) opposed. Blackwell, an African American, served as state treasurer, mayor of Cincinnati and a deputy secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development before being elected Ohio's secretary of state in 1998. He was in charge of the problem-plagued 2004 election in Ohio, an issue of particular importance to some black voters who felt disenfranchised. But through multiple recounts and lawsuits, Blackwell has been cleared of playing a role in any irregularities.
He says that his support of values issues involves not just opposing same-sex marriage and abortion but also ensuring that the poor receive health care and educational opportunities -- positions he said are warmly received by black audiences. Also, as the campaign winds toward Election Day, Blackwell said he plans to close ground by sharpening his attacks on Strickland's record as a congressman, which earned him a ranking as one of the least influential members of the House from the nonpartisan Web site Congress.org.
Meanwhile, Strickland plans to challenge Blackwell among his base of values voters. During a recent debate, Strickland talked about how his community and church helped him become the first member of his family to go to college. Then he reminded the audience of another stop in his career path: "I've been able to be a minister in the United Methodist Church."