On a sweltering mid-June afternoon, Barack Obama stood at a construction site in Columbus to tout the 10,000th project funded by his economic-stimulus plan. But to Ohio Democrats, another number was just as important: it was Obama's seventh visit to their state.
It's not the scenery that keeps the President coming back. It's the stakes for both Obama and his party in two closely watched races this fall. Ohio's Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, and his lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher, who is the party's U.S. Senate nominee, are facing what ought to be brutal election fights. The Strickland-Fisher administration has presided over the loss of 400,000 jobs here since 2007. Ohio's unemployment, at 10.5%, runs higher than the national average. And Fisher has the dubious honor of being the state's economic-development director, which these days is like being BP's top environmental executive.
Yet early polls show that both Strickland and Fisher actually stand a chance in November. How is that possible? However frustrated with Democrats voters are right now, they're still dubious about a GOP brand that's skunky from the Bush years. A July TIME poll shows that likely voters nationwide are no more inclined to vote Republican than Democratic in November's congressional elections.
And in Ohio, even wounded Democrats fare all right when matched up with individual Republicans lugging politically toxic baggage. "This cannot be an up or down vote on Barack Obama or the Democrats or the economy," says a Democratic Party strategist. "It has to be a contrast."
That said, Ohio's governor doesn't have much to brag about. Strickland took office in 2007 promising to expand Ohio's economy, but it's been mostly downhill since. Still, Strickland, 68, hails signs of recovery: Ohio added almost 50,000 jobs this spring. "There is a difference now. There is less doom and gloom, and there is more hope," he explains. But the governor admits the obvious: "It's going to take some time."
And that's not a luxury Strickland can afford now that he's facing a seasoned opponent: John Kasich, a former Republican Congressman known in the 1990s as one of Washington's toughest budget hawks. Fiscal discipline is just the theme Kasich hopes will define the race. The Republican Governors Association set the tone in June with a TV ad featuring a pair of hardened construction workers who call Strickland "a bad governor" who "blames everyone else" for Ohio's huge job losses.
The ad doesn't mention Kasich, so Strickland tries to do so at every turn. "The question is not Ted Strickland against the economy," the governor says. "It's Ted Strickland against John Kasich." There's a reason for that. The son of a steelworker from an Appalachian Ohio town, Strickland comes from origins that are wholesome (Roy Rogers grew up nearby) and humble (his family briefly slept in a chicken coop after a fire). He's also a former Methodist minister and an ex-Congressman with a culturally moderate record that appeals beyond cities such as Cleveland and Columbus. (He's been endorsed by the National Rifle Association.) "I like to talk about the difference between Ohio values and Wall Street values," Strickland says.
That's a not-so-veiled attack on Kasich. During the 18 years he represented the Columbus area in Washington, Kasich, 58, cut a profile as a financially conservative working-class hero. He has his own up-by-his-bootstraps story, but soon after leaving Congress, Kasich took a job as a managing director at the ill-fated banking giant Lehman Brothers. And Democrats are making sure voters see him as a Wall Street Republican. "John Kasich got rich while Ohio seniors lost millions," declares an ad funded by a liberal independent group. Strickland has also hit Kasich for arranging meetings between Ohio pension officials and Lehman staffers. (Those meetings did not yield investments, but state public-pension funds did lose hundreds of millions through Lehman.)