It was a cruel summer for Democrats in Ohio. A few months ago, this state where both the state house and a Senate seat are up for grabs looked like a rare place where Democrats might hold their own against intense national headwinds. Although incumbent Democratic governor Ted Strickland had presided over the loss of nearly 400,000 jobs, spring brought some green shoots of recovery and modest job gains. In one spring stretch, five out of eight polls showed Strickland ahead of his GOP rival, former Congressman John Kasich.
Ohio's lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher, was also outperforming, in his bid for retiring Republican Senator George Voinovich's seat. Fisher was saddled with the dubious distinction of being the state's economic-development director at a time of precious little development, had the misfortune to draw a tough challenger in the former Congressman and Bush budget director Rob Portman and wasn't viewed by party honchos as a skilled candidate. But as summer rolled around, a slew of polls showed Fisher in a virtual toss-up with Portman.
Since then, the outlook for Dems in the key Midwestern state has gotten significantly dimmer. Fisher has fallen far behind his rival with one recent survey showing Portman a whopping 20 points ahead and Washington Democrats have all but given up on his campaign. Several recent polls have also shown that Strickland's lead has evaporated and may now be a deficit; a mid-September TIME-CNN survey showed Kasich with a solid 51-44 lead.
The game changer has been that bane of Democrats everywhere: the economy. In mid-June, President Obama visited Columbus to help trumpet what he promised would be a "summer of recovery." That recovery never arrived, of course. And while Ohio's unemployment rate has fallen slightly, it's still above the national average of 9.5%.
That's been enough to undermine what Strickland and Fisher believed was a winning formula: to sink their GOP foes with the heavy anchor of George W. Bush and Wall Street. Take Kasich. After finishing his 18-year stint in Congress 10 years ago, he took a lucrative job at Lehman Brothers, the bank whose 2008 collapse notoriously triggered the financial crisis. In that job he brokered meetings between Ohio public-pension officials and Lehman executives looking to invest those funds in stocks that later, as it turned out, collapsed. No such deals were actually made, but that hasn't stopped Fisher's union allies from running an ad implying otherwise, saying that Kasich "got rich while Ohio seniors lost their pension money."
While Strickland played the Wall Street card, Fisher was invoking Bush whenever he could. He hammered Portman for his tenure as Bush Administration trade director and budget chief, linking him to Bush-era spending and deficit increases. Most potentially damning, Fisher accused Portman of cutting trade deals with China that sold out Ohio workers. Portman calls both charges unfair, but Fisher has been undaunted. "Congressman Rob Portman knows how to grow the economy in China," cracks one Fisher advertisement. "On his watch as Bush's trade czar, our deficit with China exploded, sending 100,000 Ohio jobs overseas."
But though these lines of attack initially worked, they couldn't overcome Republican charges that Fisher and Strickland are responsible for the state's lingering unemployment. Kasich, for instance, has slammed Strickland for trying to deflect blame onto Bush and Wall Street. "You promised to turn Ohio around, and you failed, and you want to blame everybody else," Kasich said in a mid-September debate. "You got to learn to accept personal responsibility." And Fisher is now facing attacks for Ohio's unemployment from American Crossroads, a Washington-based independent group advised by Karl Rove, which recently launched an ad campaign calling Fisher a tax hiker with bad economic ideas. "Where will Lee Fisher take our economy?" the ad asks, as a driver looks in the rearview mirror. "Just look behind you."
Other factors have brought down the Democrats, notes Ohio State University political-science professor Herb Asher. There's President Obama's sagging poll numbers: "The President, I think, is a drag," Asher says. Ohio Democrats are also dealing with the toxic publicity of a corruption scandal engulfing the party in Cuyahoga County. Fisher has been pulverized in fundraising and ad spending by Portman, has endured internal campaign disarray and is now reportedly considering mass staff layoffs to finance a final advertising push. The picture is somewhat brighter for Strickland, who only recently began an advertising campaign in earnest, says Asher.
Democrats can stomach a defeat for Fisher, in whom they never invested high hopes. But Strickland is another story and it's not just Ohio Democrats riveted by the race. A governor can have a major impact on his state's role in the presidential race, and Obama, who narrowly won Ohio in 2008, will probably need to carry the state again in 2012 if he wants a second term. At the moment, panicky Democrats are watching Ohio slip from their grasp and wishing it was spring again.