By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; A01
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.
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.
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."
But Republicans believe that, as much as Democrats try to make the midterms a choice between Obama's and Bush's philosophies, in the end the election will be a referendum on the president at a time of deep voter discontent.
"I suppose it's relevant to some people," Portman said when asked whether what happened when Republicans were in power should be a leading issue in this campaign. But he said the Obama administration's policies in combating the recession are more pertinent for voters. "The question is, was the stimulus a good idea? Has it worked?" he said. "Is the health-care bill a good idea? Has it worked?"
Politically, Ohio remains a bellwether. The state helped seal Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004. But in 2006, Ted Strickland became Ohio's first Democratic governor in 16 years. Two years ago, Obama carried Ohio by four percentage points, the first time since 1996 that a Democrat won the state.
Since the election of Strickland, who is running against Kasich for a second term, Ohio has been hit hard by the recession. Its unemployment rate of 10.5 percent is among the 10 highest in the country. Over the past four years, the state has lost more than 300,000 jobs. Strickland, like other governors, has been forced to cut services to keep the budget in balance. Worries about the economy overwhelm all other issues. Today, more people disapprove of Obama's handling of the presidency than approve.The economy's impact
Absent such enormous economic troubles, Green said, Strickland would be able to capitalize on his incumbency -- and Fisher on his name recognition as lieutenant governor -- against two candidates who have never campaigned statewide. "What the job situation has done," Green said, "is remove some of those natural advantages that incumbents or prominent state officials would have in an election."
Strickland still has one advantage: Obama will be in Ohio on Wednesday to raise money for him.
Kasich, who was House Budget Committee chairman and a top lieutenant to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) before working for Lehman, is trying to pin responsibility for the recession and its aftermath on Strickland.
"When you're the CEO of a company, and they give you a chance and you fail, they fire you, okay?" Kasich said after a campaign event in Portsmouth, in economically depressed southern Ohio.
But Strickland said others bear the blame for the state's plight. "What I'm saying to the people of Ohio is we're dealing with a recession not of our own making," he said in a telephone interview. "Frankly, a recession caused more by Wall Street greed than anything in Ohio."
Kasich's Wall Street connections have become a flash point in the race. Outside groups have run ads attacking Kasich and noting that Lehman's collapse cost the state's public pension funds nearly $500 million. "John Kasich got rich while Ohio seniors lost millions," one ad says.
Kasich responds in one of his ads by saying: "I didn't run Lehman Brothers. I was one of 700 managing directors. I worked in a two-man office in Columbus."
Kasich said in an interview that he addressed the charges about his Lehman Brothers role not because they were hurting his campaign, but merely to satisfy supporters who worried that he was failing to respond to an attack. "It was more talking points for them," he said.
Blaming him for Lehman's problems, he added, "would be like blaming a car dealer here . . . for the collapse of General Motors. You know, people want answers. They don't want smears."
He also played down his influence within the firm. "I was one of a lot of employees," he said. "I was not in a position to go in and start banging on the door. I didn't even know what was going on until it all unfolded."
Asked whether the government should have bailed out Lehman Brothers, he said: "That's yesterday's news and all that. But look, the whole thing was a mess and they went down and it's over, and it hurt a lot of people, including me, and that's the end of the story."Looking back to Bush
In the Senate race, Fisher advisers say Ohioans see Bush's trade and economic policies as the primary cause of the state's economic problems. Portman "wasn't just along for the ride, a casual passerby," Fisher charges. "He was actually one of the chief architects of the trade and economic policies that got us into this mess."
Portman does not seem eager to spend the rest of the campaign talking about the past, arguing that "it's an odd campaign to be running against the past rather than providing a vision for the future. And we're going to be providing a vision for the future, [because] that's where people are."
As for his days in the Bush administration, he notes that until he arrived as budget director, Bush had never vetoed a spending bill. "We should have done it years earlier," he said.
His record as U.S. trade representative, Portman said, was one of promoting exports. "Ohio is dependent on exports," he said. "Twenty-five percent of Ohio's factory jobs are now export jobs. One out of every three acres is planted for exports in Ohio. Farmers are dependent on it."
He also argues that he is a strong advocate for tougher enforcement of existing trade agreements and has been critical of the Obama administration for not responding more to China on currency valuations. "I'm stronger on enforcement than the administration," he said.
For Fisher, the question is whether he will have the resources to air enough commercials to make the argument about Portman's Bush administration role loudly enough to affect the race. Portman holds a sizable fundraising advantage at this point, and Democrats are worried.
Democrats privately express more confidence about holding the governor's mansion. Republicans are confident they can win both, so long as they keep the race focused on the economy, Obama and the Democrats.