COLUMBUS - If Tuesday's narrow GOP victory in a heavily Republican congressional district near Cincinnati is a sign of things of things to come, Democrats say they have ample reason to be optimistic about their political fortunes in Ohio.
In a district long-dominated by Republicans, Jean Schmidt edged her Democratic counterpart, Paul Hackett, an Iraqi war veteran, in their special election Tuesday night, winning with 52 percent of the vote. Even though Republicans kept the Congressional seat, Democrats yesterday were emboldened by the fact that they made ground in a district that their GOP counterparts won with 72 percent of the votes less than a year ago.
The special election marked the first major face-off between the parties at the ballot box since the scandal that has gripped Ohio's Republican Party and involved several GOP leaders, including Gov. Bob Taft. While Mr. Hackett's primary campaign message spoke to his service in Iraq, in the waning days of the race he tried to tie his opponent to the scandal's key players - including former Toledo-area coin dealer Tom Noe, a Republican contributor who has been accused by the Ohio's attorney general of stealing millions from the state.
Josh Earnest, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said the election showed that Mr. Noe is "going to be an albatross for Republican campaigns in '06."
"The results indicated that being associated with Tom Noe is not a benefit to the Republicans," he said. "It certainly didn't benefit the Schmidt campaign."
He added, "At the end of the day, Noe's connection to her campaign was a problem for her."
Jason Mauk, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican party, said earlier this week that the 2006 elections - which include an open race for the state's governorship - "will be decided on the issues important to moving Ohio forward."
He said voters will give Republicans credit for dealing with the scandal. "That includes prosecuting people who step over the ethical and criminal line," he said. "The strategy is to investigate the allegations and prosecute any criminal wrongdoing that might be uncovered."
Mr. Noe, whose $50 million rare-coin fund is under investigation, became a campaign talking point last weekend when Ms. Schmidt, on a Cincinnati television program, denied having met the coin dealer.
She also told The Blade through a spokesman that she did not remember lobbying the state for an online lottery ticket company, in which Mr. Noe and other influential Republicans had invested.
The Blade reported she accepted a $1,000 contribution from Roger Ach, the head of Games Inc., the online lottery company.
Mr. Hackett's campaign later held a news conference to unveil documentation showing that Ms. Schmidt gave a presentation before Mr. Noe, when he served as chairman of the Ohio Board of Regents.
"She doesn't remember meeting Noe, she's doesn't remember lobbying Taft, she doesn't remember taking money from Roger Ach," Mr. Hackett said in a statement on Sunday. "She is the poster child for the culture of corruption."
Mr. Mauk said Republicans "fully expect the Democrats to play political games" with the allegations that have arisen.
"We are not going to consume ourselves in this election cycle with one person," Mr. Mauk said. "The Democrats can make the next election cycle all about Tom Noe. It's unfortunate if they do because voters want positive ideas about leading this state."
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