Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) yesterday pleaded no contest to charges that he violated state ethics laws, becoming the first governor in the state's history convicted of a crime and providing powerful ammunition to Democrats seeking to break the Republican Party's dominance in a critical swing state.
For the past decade, Democrats have been in retreat in the Buckeye State. Republicans have won the governor's office for four consecutive terms, control both houses of the legislature and hold the other major statewide offices. Last year, Ohio was ground zero in the presidential campaign and provided the crucial electoral votes that secured President Bush's reelection victory.
Political analysts said yesterday that the spreading scandal that put Taft in a Columbus courthouse, as well as public dissatisfaction over an economy whose unemployment rate is above the national average, leaves Republicans vulnerable for a potential housecleaning in next year's elections. "Potentially, it could be a very tough year," said Eric W. Rademacher, co-director of the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll.
Taft, who cooperated with investigators, issued a public apology after being convicted on four misdemeanor counts for failing to report 52 golf outings, dinners and other entertainment gifts. He was fined $4,000, the maximum. Taft, who by law cannot run again, said he will not resign.
"There are no words to express the deep remorse that I feel over the embarrassment that I have caused for my administration and for the people of the state of Ohio," Taft said after the sentencing. "I offer my sincere and heartfelt apology, and I hope the people will understand that these mistakes, though major and important mistakes, were done unintentionally, and I hope and pray they will accept my apology."
Among the golf outings were two from Tom Noe, a prominent Republican fundraiser and rare coin dealer who is at the heart of a larger scandal involving the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation, which invested approximately $50 million in rare coins through Noe. Investigators later found $10 million to $13 million was missing, sending GOP officials scampering to escape the taint of association with Noe.
The Taft name is one of the most storied in the history of Republican politics. His father and grandfather were both U.S. senators, and his great-grandfather, William Howard Taft, served both as president and as chief justice of the United States. But in office, Taft has struggled constantly. With the news of his reporting failures, his approval rating has plunged below 20 percent, the lowest of any governor in the nation.
Republicans blamed Taft's unpopularity and the coin scandal for the surprisingly close outcome in a special House election in southwest Ohio this month. In that race, Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran and harsh critic of Bush, came within 5,000 votes of defeating Republican Jean Schmidt in a district Bush won with 64 percent of the vote.
Rademacher said the challenge for Republicans next year will be to convince voters that the problems that have left them so unhappy are the fault of the Taft administration, not the GOP itself. "One of the real questions for all of us for next year is . . . whether or not their focus is on the governor's office or all the statewide offices up for election next year," he said.
The Democrats' top priorities appear to be the governor's office and the office of secretary of state, which oversees elections and which became a focal point of Democrats' anger last year because the incumbent, Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell, also chaired the Bush-Cheney campaign in the state.
Congressional Democrats also are targeting Republican Rep. Robert W. Ney, whose association with indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff has tied him to charges of GOP corruption. On Wednesday, Chillicothe Mayor Joseph P. Sulzer, a Democrat, announced his candidacy for the House seat.
Senate Democratic campaign officials have been seeking to recruit someone to run against Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, but on Wednesday, heavily recruited Rep. Sherrod Brown announced he would not run. Some grass-roots Democrats want Hackett to run for the Senate.
However vulnerable Republicans may be, Democrats can't count on scandal alone to change their fortunes. "Their party structure is not well funded or well organized," said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "Even if the situation turned out to be very bad for the Republicans next year, from the vantage point of today, it would seem unlikely that the Democrats would sweep a large proportion of the offices."