Mike DeWine has friends in low-popularity places.
His U.S. Senate re-election could depend in part on whether voters hold it against him.
Mr. DeWine, a Cedarville Republican, has rubbed financial shoulders with some of the nation's most controversial politicians and interest groups this campaign. He has raised money with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, whose approval ratings have nose-dived in Ohio, and with two leading figures in a high-profile Washington lobbyist scandal: U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and U.S. Rep. Bob Ney.
On a Toledo campaign stop yesterday, Mr. DeWine's Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, ripped Mr. DeWine and congressional Republicans for their fund-raising ties to large oil companies, who have suffered a rough public rela-tions streak in recent months for reporting record profits while gasoline prices rise.
"We will not be able to bring gas prices down until Congress and the White House break their addiction to oil company campaign contributions," Mr. Brown said during a news conference outside a Clark gas station on Dorr St. "In the last five years, George Bush, Mike DeWine, and Republicans in Washington have received $73 million in oil and gas company contributions."
Mr. DeWine has taken nearly $40,000 from oil and gas interests in the first few months of this year and close to $350,000 over his career. An industry lobbying group says Mr. DeWine voted its way 80 percent of the time in the last three years, despite his opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Republicans counter that Mr. Brown is beholden to labor unions and trial lawyers, who have combined to give him millions in campaign cash over his career. Mr. DeWine recently declared the country "has to move beyond oil" and has repeatedly said donors and political allies do not dictate his Senate votes.
"I try and do what I think is in the best interests of the state of Ohio," Mr. DeWine said in an interview earlier this year, "and I vote my conscience."
Mr. DeWine and his campaign staff say the senator's and Mr. Brown's contrasting congressional records, and nothing else, will decide the election.
Analysts say Democrats are trying to tarnish Mr. DeWine by association and recast the race as change versus the status quo in Washington.
The latest charges on oil contributions are "a brick in the argument, a brick in the wall they're building," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate campaigns for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. But, Ms. Duffy added, "I've never seen [oil money] as a voting issue."
Democrats have criticized Mr. DeWine for months over his fund-raising associates, starting with a pair of winter events featuring Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush that grossed more than $1 million total for the senator's campaign.
In April, national Democrats questioned Mr. DeWine's appearance at a fund-raiser for Mr. Ney, a Republican from Heath, Ohio. Mr. Ney's already substantial role in a criminal probe involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff grew this week when his former chief of staff pleaded guilty to charges surrounding improper gifts and travel from Abramoff.
Mr. Burns, a Montana Republican, has also drawn fire for alleged ties to Abramoff. He, Mr. DeWine, and another GOP senator are partners in a special fund-raising committee to benefit their campaigns.
The recent spike in gas prices gave Democrats a hook to ramp up a related attack: that Mr. DeWine is overly influenced by donations from pharmaceutical companies, Wall Street brokerages, and energy producers, including $3,000 this election from the political arm of ExxonMobil, which recently reported an $8.4 billion first-quarter profit.
Democrats allege those contributions have brought ExxonMobil and other oil giants lax oversight from a Senate subcommittee, which Mr. DeWine chairs, that monitors large corporate mergers.
"There seems to be a pattern of his doing the bidding of his corporate donors," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
During his Toledo news conference, Mr. Brown said federal gasoline taxes should be suspended and anti-price gouging legislation must be implemented quickly to reduce prices at the pump. In the long-term, he said leaders must consider alternative energy sources and assure that prices remain stable during shortages and disasters.
Republicans criticize Mr. Brown for voting against several GOP-backed energy bills in recent years and against a federal gas tax repeal in the 1990s.
They note oil and gas interests have donated nearly $50,000 to Mr. Brown's campaign committees throughout his political career. And they criticize the more-than $1.7 million he's taken from unions and lawyers through eight congressional campaigns.
"The trial attorney lobby seems to have a sycophant in Sherrod Brown," said Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "You see where he's going by where the donations are coming in from."
If the Ohio Senate race becomes a referendum on unpopular donors or scandal-bitten Republicans, "that's a lot of trouble" for Mr. DeWine, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Mr. DeWine's spokesman, Brian Seitchik, insists it won't be. "This election is going to be about what the senator has done for the people of Ohio," he said, "and what Sherrod Brown has done for the people of Ohio."
Blade staff writer Steve Eder contributed to this story.
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