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  •   Ohio River Valley: Democrats Lean Right

    Ohio River Valley
    Ground Zero: The Ohio River Valley
    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, November 5, 1998; Page A35

    Democrats won half the contested House districts in the crucial Ohio River Valley region Tuesday by successfully tailoring their campaigns to a generally conservative electorate.

    In the region known as ground zero in the 1998 House elections, the two parties went into the contest with four seats each and emerged with the same balance of power. Republicans lost an opportunity for bigger gains in rural-suburban districts in northern Kentucky, southeast Ohio and southeast Indiana when two candidates tied to the Christian right – Gex Williams and Gary Hofmeister – went down to defeat.

    Over the past year, The Washington Post followed the contests because Republicans viewed the territory as crucial to their hopes of increasing their House majority, and Democrats knew that the districts represented the kind of difficult terrain where they had to be competitive if they were to stop further Republican gains. That sometimes meant moving toward the middle and adopting more conservative positions.

    In the past, Republicans have enjoyed consistent success by focusing their campaigns on emotional issues such as abortion, gay rights and pornography. But the concerted Republican effort to capitalize on the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal failed to produce the sweep that GOP leaders were hoping for.

    Most voters "do not like the [independent counsel Kenneth W.] Starr tendency to bathe in the prurient," said Stanford political scientist David W. Brady, a specialist in congressional elections whose allegiance is to the GOP. "Most voters do not care about these matters when evaluating the president."

    Williams and Hofmeister were prominent clients of Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition turned political consultant. The setback for the conservative Christian movement was most severe in the case of Williams, who lost to Kenneth Lucas, a conservative Democrat, in a northern Kentucky district vacated by Sen.-elect Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) that has moved decisively toward the GOP over the past 20 years.

    Williams, who had engineered a Republican-conservative Democrat takeover of the Kentucky state Senate and had never lost an election, received the backing of almost every high-visibility GOP leader, including such past and future presidential candidates as former vice president Dan Quayle, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, Robert J. Dole, Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) and Family Research Council head Gary Bauer.

    "We took on Ralph Reed and we won," declared John Lapp, Lucas's campaign manager. The Lucas campaign conducted an unrelenting assault on Williams's integrity starting after the primary and did not let up until Election Day. When Williams in the last few weeks attempted to portray Lucas as "a Clinton liberal" with suspect claims of being "pro-life," "the message fell on deaf ears because the messenger was emasculated," Lapp said.

    Lucas was the most aggressive Democrat in the region, if not the entire country, in asserting his conservative credentials. He boasted that he is a "compassionate conservative: pro-life, pro-gun and pro-business." By stressing his rightward stands on social issues and by contrasting his own military experience with the fact that Williams dropped out of the U.S. Naval Academy, Lucas could absorb the closing attack conducted by the Williams campaign and the national Republican Party.

    Along similar lines, Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) fended off a challenge by Lt. Governor Nancy Hollister (R), who was backed up by nearly $1 million channeled by national GOP committees.

    Strickland, running in a rural district where the Democratic label is a liability, ran ads declaring he "voted to ban partial-birth abortion" and cosponsored legislation protecting "Christians from persecution around the world," while Hollister had backed a $1 billion state sales tax "that would have sent our money to places like Cleveland."

    By portraying Hollister as an advocate of redistributive tax policies benefiting urban areas at the expense of southeastern Ohio, Strickland reversed the usual Republican critique of Democrats.

    The two successful Democrats in contested Indiana races, Rep. Julia Carson in Indianapolis and Baron Hill in the southeastern section of the state, both countered challenges from the ideological right.

    Carson ran last-minute ads declaring her opposition to partial-birth abortion with an exemption for the health of the woman, and her support for "increased penalties for violent offenders." Hill told voters "we need zero tolerance of guns and drugs in schools . . . [and schools should teach] basic values, like discipline and respect."

    Carson and Hill ran under protective cover provided by former governor Evan Bayh, a successful candidate for the Senate, at the top of the ticket. Bayh's campaign ran ads with his wife saying he "cracked down on deadbeat dads, sponsored Indiana's fatherhood initiative. ... And worked to make our schools safer and drug-free, and to move people from welfare to work."

    The Republicans who won in the region on Tuesday used a number of techniques.

    Rep. Steve Chabot (Ohio) retained his Cincinnati district by refusing to bend in his criticism of government spending. He rejected pressure to moderate his conservatism despite continued charges by challenger Roxanne Qualls (D), the city's popular mayor, that Chabot repeatedly voted against beneficial projects and spending programs.

    Conversely, Ernie Fletcher (R), a family doctor who won the Kentucky seat vacated by Rep. Scotty Baesler (D), muted charges by Ernesto Scorsone (D) that he failed to support patients' rights by running ads in which former patients heaped praise on Fletcher for fighting health maintenance organizations on their behalf to ensure the best possible treatment.

    Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) financially overwhelmed her Democratic challenger, Chris Gorman. Her relatively weak 52 to 48 percent showing against a candidate described as "second tier" suggests she will face a tougher challenger in two years.

    In southwest Indiana, Rep. John N. Hostettler (R) won a close race in a competitive district. Hostettler portrayed Gail Riecken as a liberal Democrat who supports legislation that would "force" churches and schools to hire homosexuals.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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