Campaign '06: No Politics Is Local in Ohio

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Ask any high-level Republican strategist which House races they are going to be sweating the most over on election night, and there's one that always comes up in their top two or three: Ohio's 15th district, which consists of most of Columbus and the fast-growing suburbs just west of it. There is no better indicator of whether this congressional election will follow the midterm norm in which voters make their decision based on their loyalties to their individual member of Congress, or whether they will be swept up by a national wave that could wash out the same Republican majority that came in on the last one in 1994.

The 15th's incumbent, Deborah Pryce, is the fourth-ranking member of the House Republican leadership, so popular here that she has not been in a real contest since her first election to the House in 1992 even though her district has trended more Democrat.(She beat George Bush's vote in the district by 10 percentage points in 2004.) But this year, Pryce finds herself in the political fight of her life. So great is the threat that she was forced to begin airing television ads last June, which is unusually early for a seven-term incumbent; so out of practice was her organization that the ad spelled her first name as "Deboarah."

It seems every plague that has been visited on Republicans nationally has found its way into this bellwether district. The latest is the Mark Foley scandal, which probably would not have had much impact in this district, were it not for the misfortune of an interview that Pryce gave to Columbus Monthly magazine a month before the scandal broke. She was asked to name her best friends in Congress, and you-know-who made her top five. Back then, not many people around Columbus had heard of Foley. But now, there's not anyone who hasn't, thanks to the saturation coverage of the page scandal, helped along by an ad that her opponent, Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy, quickly placed on Christian radio stations: "Deborah Pryce's friend Mark Foley is caught using his position to take advantage of 16-year-old pages," the announcer says.

The two candidates' only debate was Thursday night, and it was a near-perfect distillation of their parties' national messages. Pryce opened by reminding voters of what her clout in Washington had meant to the district — a flood wall for West Columbus, a new tower for the airport, a veterans clinic — but within two minutes was warning of al Qaeda's threat to kill 4 million Americans. "This is a threat that we will live with until we defeat the terrorists," she said. "The central front in the war on terror is Iraq." Kilroy framed the election as a referendum not only on Pryce but on the Republican leadership in Congress and on the Bush Administration. "We need a change in Washington," she said. "We need a new direction."

The polls at the moment would suggest that voters in Ohio agree. Unless something happens to change the dynamic between now and election day, the state that in 2004 handed George W. Bush the electoral votes he need to win a second term could be a complete washout for his party this year. The Foley scandal, says Franklin County Republican Chairman Doug Preisse, is "one more pebble in a balance that was already weighted heavily against us." Even before it broke, Ohio's Republicans were facing a stiff headwind from a struggling economy, a G.O.P. scandal in the statehouse and increasing opposition to the war. At the moment, political strategists of both parties say, the Republicans who have dominated Ohio politics in recent years would likely lose both the governorship and a Senate seat. As many as five House seats are also at risk, including that of indicted Congressman Bob Ney, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges stemming from his involvement in the Jack Abramoff investigation, and who is likely to be expelled from Congress.

Given Ohio's crucial role in presidential politics, a Democratic sweep here could also alter the calculation for 2008. That's one reason that outside groups are carpet-bombing the airwaves, and candidates like Pryce and Kilroy are getting plenty of help from the biggest names in both of their parties. John McCain is currently starring in an ad for Pryce; Barack Obama came to Columbus to campaign for Kilroy last week — the latest in a line of potential 2008 hopefuls that has also included John Kerry and John Edwards, the 2004 nominee and his running mate, as well as Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.

Republicans are counting on their vaunted Ohio turnout operation, though they concede it will only make a difference if their candidates can get to within striking distance by Election Day — say, within four or five points in the polls. And the Democrats' allies say they have also learned a thing or two since 2004 about bringing their voters to the polls. Where an anti-gay-marriage initiative energized religious groups in 2004, labor says its forces are seeing the same effect from a measure this year that would raise the state minimum wage. Ohio AFL-CIO President William Burga says his organizers are targeting the 496,000 union "drop-off voters," who show up for presidential years but not in midterm elections. Meanwhile, he says, union operatives in the field are sensing a distinct lack of enthusiasm on the other side, particularly among religious voters. "They won't have the army they had in 2004," he predicts. "We don't see it."

If that's true, the tide in Ohio politics could well be reversed this Election Day. At Thursday's debate, Pryce described herself time and again as a "thoughtful moderate," which she said makes her an "endangered species." She stressed the number of times she has disagreed with her President and her party leadership, but she acknowledged that she is carrying the weight of their unpopularity. "We heard a lot of names tonight. Most of them aren't on the ballot," Pryce said. This could be the year when the most shopworn electoral cliche could be turned upside down. In one Ohio district at least, it may turn out that no politics is local.