The Crucial Corridor

In Ohio, two races test Democrats' strategy for midterm elections

If you missed any of this year's primaries -- or just forgot -- here are the names and faces you need to know in November.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

COLUMBUS, OHIO -- There could not be two better examples of what President Obama and the Democrats want the fall elections to be about than Ohio Republicans Rob Portman and John Kasich.

Portman, who is running for the Senate, was the chief trade officer and White House budget director for President George W. Bush. Kasich, a former congressman who is running for governor, spent a decade working for Lehman Brothers, the Wall Street firm whose collapse helped trigger the massive economic retraction.

Together, their races may provide the nation's clearest test of whether the Democrats' strategy of running against Bush and Wall Street can overcome a political climate tilted clearly toward the Republicans.

(Interactive: I-70 corridor battleground races)

Economic issues overwhelm everything else in Ohio, and Republicans are, at the moment, capitalizing on voter unhappiness. By November, Democrats must shift the focus of the debate if they are to hold down their losses here and across the country. Whether they can do so is the crucial question.

"It's a battle between present economic reality and past economic reality," John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said of the two parties' strategies.

(Ohio Senate race by the numbers)

This election year has been described as the year of the outsider, when Washington connections are considered anathema to voters. Portman and Kasich, whose races are seen as tossups, run contrary to that assumption. And they are hardly the only Republicans whose profiles seem, at least on the surface, at odds with the mood of the electorate and thus more open to Democratic attacks.

Along the critical Interstate 70 corridor, which is home to some of the most competitive races in the country this year, Republicans have put forward a number of candidates who have either deep Washington connections or strong ties to past GOP administrations: In Indiana, former senator Dan Coats, who became a Washington lobbyist, is seeking the seat of retiring Sen. Evan Bayh (D). In Missouri, Rep. Roy Blunt, who was the Republican whip during Bush's presidency, is running for the Senate. In Iowa, Terry Branstad, who was governor for four terms in the 1980s and 1990s, is pursuing his old office.

The Democrats have made Kasich's and Portman's résumés central to their campaign messages, hammering Kasich for his Wall Street ties and calling Portman the architect of Bush's trade and economic policies.

"It's the largest divide in the country between two candidates running for the U.S. Senate," Portman's opponent, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D), said of the differences between him and his rival. "The divide is as deep as this economic recession is."

(Video: Obama's kitchen table politics in Ohio)

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