All the issues that are key to this fall's elections are on display in Ohio
CHAGRIN FALLS, OHIO--Chatting up constituents at the Blossom Time Parade in late May, Sen. Mike DeWine isn't exactly flaunting his Republican dna. He basks in praise from a young environmentalist for breaking with President Bush to oppose oil drilling in Alaska. He showcases his role helping a Cleveland nasa lab land a contract worth up to $2 billion. Even discussing campaign strategy, DeWine avoids any whiff of partisanship. "Richard Nixon had this theory that campaigns peaked, while John Kennedy's theory was to run flat out," he says before joining the parade in this upscale Cleveland suburb. "I subscribe to Kennedy."
As DeWine tries to distance himself from Bush and the GOP--his first TV ad bills him as an "independent fighter for Ohio families"--Democratic challenger Sherrod Brown, a seven-term congressman, is doing his best to lash him to both. "When George Bush wanted to go to war, Mike DeWine said 'OK,'" Brown says, weaving through supporters at the Fire Mountain Steakhouse in Mansfield, in central Ohio. "When George Bush wanted to let drug companies write the Medicare law and oil companies pass the energy bill, Mike DeWine said 'OK.'"
As Democrats plot their campaign to take back Congress, variations of the DeWine-Brown contest are playing out across the country: Republicans running as independent-minded and focused on local issues while their Democratic challengers portray them as lap dogs to an unpopular president. In the five months until Election Day, U.S. News will be following 18 key House and Senate races, both in the magazine and at usnews.com's Campaign Diary 2006 (www.usnews.com/politics). These contests hold the key to this year's big political question: Which party will hold the balance of power when Congress reconvenes next January?
Nowhere are the forces shaping the midterms in sharper relief than in Ohio, where Republicans control both U.S. Senate seats and 12 of 18 House seats, along with the state legislature and the governor's mansion. Last year, Gov. Bob Taft pleaded no contest to ethics charges for failing to report golf trips and other gifts. Other Republicans are embroiled in a scandal involving the state's shady investments in rare coins, while Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, a Republican, is a target in the federal probe of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. A recent University of Cincinnati poll has Taft's approval rating at 26 percent and Bush's at 35 percent. "The Republicans are in total control in Ohio and in Washington," says Ted Strickland, the Democratic nominee for governor here. "The result is the same: We've got a big and growing scandal in Ohio and in D.C."
The environment has fueled the Democrats' most successful Buckeye State recruitment drive in decades, giving DeWine the first real challenge in his 12-year Senate career and feeding speculation that Democrats could unseat up to three House Republicans and win the open-seat gubernatorial race. "Republicans will come out of this election in worse shape, " says University of Akron Prof. John Green. "The question is, how bad will it be?"
All-American. In many ways, Ohio is a microcosm of the nation. Its cities, including Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland, make for large urban and suburban populations, while the state is also home to two of the country's fastest-growing exurban counties. Nearly a quarter of the population is rural. The political topography varies widely, from conservative Cincinnati, across the river from Kentucky, to a culturally conservative but impoverished swath of Appalachia in the southeast, to white-collar Columbus to blue-collar Cleveland. African-Americans constitute just under 11.5 percent of the population, similar to the national demographic picture, though the Latino population is much smaller.