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As Midwest suffers, Democrats may lose a key foothold

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.

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Those gains in 2006 foretold, almost exactly, Obama's sweep across the region two years later. Democrats won six of the seven races for governor and U.S. Senate in 2006 along the five I-70 battleground states. This year there are eight races for governor and Senate in these states; Democrats have already conceded defeat in three of them and trail in the other five.

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Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) blames his party for squandering the connection it made with industrial Midwest voters. He lambastes "the Obama administration's failure to win the communication war" by allowing Republicans to argue that legislation such as the massive stimulus bill was a failure when it accounted for more than 22,500 jobs last month in Pennsylvania alone.

Brown, who is furiously raising money for his 2012 reelection campaign, said the drift from Democrats is an expression of economic despair.

"Times are so bad for so many people, and progress has not been made quickly enough," he said, suggesting that voters tuned out any idea that the $814 billion stimulus helped at all. "People weren't listening to that, because they feel betrayed by their government."

Courting the youth vote

One group that Democrats are determined to keep within the fold: college students and those just starting out in their first jobs. Young people were critical to Obama's election, and his party has tried to rekindle their enthusiasm this year.

Here's one example of why Democrats are so eager to motivate young voters: An October Dayton Daily News/Ohio Newspaper poll found Kasich, the Republican, leading Strickland 49 percent to 45 percent among all voters in the governor's race. But voters 18 to 29 years old backed Strickland 65 percent to 29 percent.

That is, if they vote. Whether young people will turn out has been one of the mysteries of this campaign. The same poll found that 75 percent of all voters were either "extremely" or "very" interested in the election. Only 43 percent of voters under 30 said so.

On the Ohio State campus, students at Democratic headquarters are trying to convince their classmates to vote - and vote Democratic. The place is festooned with Obama campaign posters, an American flag and yard signs for every Democrat on the 2010 ballot; the office is a throwback to the optimistic days of 2008.

Between Sept. 22, the first day of classes at Ohio State, and Oct. 4, when voter registration in Ohio closed, campus Democrats registered 2,721 voters - about twice the 2006 total. Volunteers knocked on over 1,100 doors each of the past two weekends and were reaching 500 students a night by phone. An Obama rally on campus two weeks ago drew 35,000 people, an organizing feat worthy of a presidential race.

Senior Matt Caffrey, the club's president, has practically lived at the office, logging call after call to students. He left once last week, to take his midterms.

Caffrey was still a Dayton-area high school student in 2006, but he became a fixture at the Greene County Democratic office, working for local candidates. In 2007, his freshman year at Ohio State, he became a Democratic dorm captain and campus spokesman for Obama.

Irritable students on the other end of the line don't phase him. "I try to stay bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about things," Caffrey said. "There hasn't been an election yet that I cared about that I've lost."

Caffrey's got help from a motley crew of fellow students. Joey Longley, a 19-year-old sophomore, showed up on campus as an evangelical Republican. But five of the seven young men in his Bible group were Democrats, and he found that his Democratic friends shared his socially conservative, fiscally progressive views.

"It wasn't that my values changed," Longley said. "It was that I began to see Democrats in a different way."

He embraced his new party with the fervor of a convert. In July, when Longley and Caffrey drove to a national meeting of college Democrats in North Carolina, they listened to the recorded version of the president's second book, "The Audacity of Hope," and played "Name That Obama Cabinet Secretary."

For Democrats in a grueling year, enthusiasm like that has been hard to find.

murrays@washpost.com kanep@washpost.com


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