By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 11, 2006
COLUMBUS -- Within hours of trouncing Sen. Mike DeWine (R) to become the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Ohio since 1992, Rep. Sherrod Brown heard from a trio of Democratic well-wishers: Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama, presidential aspirants all.
The calls were hardly surprising.
"This is an important state," Brown said. "People know that."
Political strategists girding for 2008 are already studying Ohio, which this week produced a Democratic sweep of the most important statewide offices after backing President Bush and the Republicans in 2004. No Republican has ever reached the White House without winning here.
The political climate for the GOP this year was the worst in three decades, largely because of the Iraq war and corruption scandals. But Brown and his advisers believe his populist appeal to the middle class on economic issues was central to his decisive defeat of DeWine, a two-term incumbent who lost by nearly 500,000 votes.
Brown and Rep. Ted Strickland, who became Ohio's first Democratic governor-elect in 16 years, voiced support and understanding for Ohioans fearful about their economic futures. Layering their speeches with themes of economic and social justice, they called for progress on health care and jobs, on taxes and special-interest politics.
Although the Iraq war provided a crucial opening, Brown hammered DeWine not just for backing Bush on matters of national security but also for being part of a Republican majority that worked closely with drug and energy companies on legislation that affects average Ohioans. Early and often, he accused DeWine of betraying the middle class.
"There was a message about middle-class families, their challenges, their dreams, their aspirations, that they focused on laserlike," said Democratic strategist and unpaid Brown adviser Steve Ricchetti, who cited internal polls supporting the approach. "There's a lot to be learned from that, not only in 2008 in Ohio but generally."
Much could change in two years. Indeed, much already has, with control of Congress and Ohio's major statewide offices passing to the Democrats. No longer will Democratic candidates be able to say that their opponents hold all the levers of power. Democrats will have a deeper record to tout or defend.
Also, a widely unpopular Republican president will be on his way out, and it remains unknown how the Iraq war and the U.S. economy will be faring, or what other issue will emerge.
But at a time when voters continually complain that Democrats do not offer an alternative vision, many people credited Brown and Strickland with presenting affirmative messages and clear profiles that carried their campaigns, even as 11 of 12 congressional Republicans successfully defended their seats.
Even some opponents offered praise.
"Sherrod Brown ran an outstanding campaign. His ads were very good. His message was tight, and he was a very good messenger," said Aaron McLear, a Republican National Committee spokesman who worked in Ohio this year. "We were all pretty impressed."
He said Republicans looking to 2008 will take from this year's campaign the lesson that "we need to get back to our conservative principles of smaller government and better security -- and make sure the leaders of our party have public service as a priority."
The GOP gubernatorial candidate, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, ran as a pure social conservative, emphasizing issues important to the Christian right. He came across to many voters as overly partisan, ran low on money early and lost his race by 900,000 votes.
He faced Strickland, a steelworker's son, ordained United Methodist minister and former prison counselor from Appalachia who has a top rating from the National Rifle Association. The Democrat advertised on Christian radio, quoting a biblical injunction "to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God."
In rural areas that heavily supported Bush in 2004, turnout declined and Strickland outpolled Blackwell.
"For Republicans to be elected in Ohio, they have to be candidates who can appeal to the base but also have broad appeal," said Pat DeWine, Hamilton County commissioner and Sen. DeWine's son. "One reason Ted Strickland was successful was that there were issues he appealed to conservatives on."
Brown did well in rural areas, too, splitting the vote with DeWine while running up huge margins in the cities, according to exit polls reported by the Associated Press. His appeal on economics probably made a difference.
Only a third of voters believe they are getting ahead financially, the polls found. And among people worried about the economy, a strong majority preferred Brown, a policy-minded career politician and seven-term House member who never pretended to be a Washington outsider.
Democratic strategist and former state party chairman Jim Ruvolo believes Iraq was "the biggest part" of Brown's victory. Brown, who voted against the war and the USA Patriot Act, effectively used the worsening situation in Iraq to raise questions about Republican competence on national security.
Ruvolo thinks the war debate caused voters, particularly independents, to take a closer look at other Democratic positions, particularly on the economy.
"It opened the ears of a lot of Ohio voters to Democrats. Now that they were listening, [the candidates] could bring it back to the economic issues," said Ruvolo, Ohio chairman of the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "The frustration we had in 2004 is we couldn't make it about the economy. We just couldn't get through."
Republicans said they felt good about their turnout operation, which they credited with deciding the close races for Rep. Deborah Pryce in Columbus and Rep. Jean Schmidt in southern Ohio. For weeks before Election Day, for example, the party focused on people who voted in 2004 but did not cast ballots in the previous two midterms.
The final piece of Republican campaign literature featured photographs of Clinton, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the future House speaker. A win for the Democrats, the brochure warned, would produce "their America." As one GOP operative put it, the party needs only to mention Clinton's name to see Republicans bristle -- and vote. Two years from now, she may well be the one testing how much Ohio politics have shifted.
"You know what?" said McLear. "We had a bad year, but that doesn't mean the franchise is busted."