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Published: Sunday, 10/8/2006

Democrats set sights on gaining seats

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU
CTY State Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R., Cuyahoga Falls) 27th Ohio Senate District.  Photo: Ohio 2005-06 Senate website CTY State Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R., Cuyahoga Falls) 27th Ohio Senate District. Photo: Ohio 2005-06 Senate website
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COLUMBUS - Washington may be abuzz over whether voter discontent will translate into a Democratic congressional coup, but Ohio Democrats will be satisfied with a step or two on a long journey back to relevancy in the state General Assembly.

Republican control of the legislature is so lopsided that even a Democratic tidal wave on Nov. 7 is unlikely to undo gains the GOP made over more than a decade of elections and redistricting.

In the Senate, where Republicans rule 22 to 11, Democrats have not had a net gain in an election in 14 years. Democrats have begun scratching their way back in the House, but they're still outnumbered 60-39.

Republicans are on the defensive, weighed down by scandal at the highest levels of state government and polls showing Democrat Ted Strickland with double-digit leads over Republican Ken Blackwell at the top of the ticket in the governor's race.

"We're certainly seeing in polling that the mood has changed," said Sarah Briggs, political director for the House Democratic Caucus. "People want change, and the issue that is resonating most is jobs or the economy, whether you're in Strongsville or Noble County.

"It's across the board with everything that's gone on nationally and at the top of the ticket with [Gov. Bob] Taft, [Tom] Noe, and Coingate," she said.

But Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) cautioned that, if there is an anti-incumbent mood, it endangers Democrats too. That's one reason his caucus has targeted a single Democrat incumbent, Sen. Tom Roberts (D., Trotwood), in the 5th District in the Dayton area.

"It may look like a retreat, but we're just attacking in a different direction," Mr. Harris said. "I know the polls show we're on

defense, and we'll accept that, but we're attacking from all directions. This has forced us to roll up our sleeves and outwork our opponents."

The long-term Democratic game plan is to make modest gains over the next three legislative elections, grab control of the state apportionment board by holding key statewide offices after the 2010 election, redraw district boundaries in 2011, and then look to 2012 as the watershed year.

"It is a long, slow process," said Robert Dempsey, Senate Democratic campaign manager. "The slash-and-burn mentality doesn't really exist here. We're cautiously optimistic that we will make gains in 2006."

To take control of the Senate, Democrats would have to pick up six seats, an extreme long-shot since, of 17 seats on the ballot, only five are considered to be in play and one of those is Mr. Roberts' district.

The hottest contest is expected in the 13th District, where Sen. Jeffrey Armbruster (R., North Ridgeville) is being forced out by term limits. The Democrat-leaning district consists of eastern Seneca County and all of Huron and Lorain counties. Lorain nurse Susan Morano is back again after losing to Mr. Armbruster by less than 400 votes four years ago.

Republicans offer Martha Wise of Avon. The State Board of Education member made headlines earlier this year by successfully battling to remove language from the state's science curriculum that critics argued would allow the teaching of intelligent design.

Democrats are also aggressively challenging three incumbents who are considered vulnerable: Sen. Kevin Coughlin in the suburban Akron 27th District, Sen. Kirk Schuring in Canton's 29th District, and Sen. David Goodman in the suburban Columbus 3rd District.

All are Republican-leaning, suburban-urban districts that have been trending Democratic in recent years with outward migration from the central city. John Kerry carried the first two districts in the 2004 presidential election and was extremely competitive against President Bush in the third.

In the Roberts district, Republicans offer Trotwood Mayor Donald K. McLaurin, a small business owner who, like Mr. Roberts, is African-American.

While probably Republicans' best bet to put Democrats on the defensive, the challenge is an uphill battle. Mr. Kerry carried 56 percent of the vote in that area in 2004.

In the Ohio House, Democrats would need an unlikely net gain of 11 seats to regain control.

"Every election cycle is a unique challenge," said Dwight Crum, director of the House Republican Campaign Committee.

"Clearly, some say there is anti-Republican sentiment out there. I would suggest that it's an anti-incumbent sentiment, not only in Ohio but across the country. Democrats have incumbents to defend," Mr. Crum said.

In a grudge match, Democrats badly want to send Rep. Randy Law (R., Warren) packing after his upset two years ago of a Democrat incumbent in Trumbull County's 64th District. They consider this manufacturing-heavy district that went 60 percent to Mr. Kerry in 2004 to be Democratic territory that was lost only because the incumbent failed to take Mr. Law's challenge seriously.

Ms. Briggs says this year's Democratic candidate, attorney Tom Letson, won't make the same mistake.

Democrats also will go all out after the manufacturing-heavy, Republican-leaning 1st District in Columbiana County as Rep. Chuck Blasdel (R., East Liverpool) runs for Congress, setting up a showdown between a Republican county commissioner and a Democratic county treasurer.

The decision of second-term state Rep. Mary Taylor (R., Green) to run for state auditor has left her Democratic-leaning 43rd District wide open in the Akron suburbs. Republicans are offering an attorney against a former newspaper reporter.

Democrats are also looking at the suburban Cleveland 18th District held by Rep. Tom Patton (R., Strongsville), who faces an opponent with the powerful Cuyahoga County political name of Celebrezze. This Celebrezze, John, is an attorney and former teacher.

The only seat in northwest Ohio that appears to be even peripherally be on the radar screens for either party is that held by rookie Rep. Dan White (R., Norwalk), a retired executive recently appointed to replace Kathleen Walcher Reed in the 58th District.

The district, one of three making up the targeted seat now held by Mr. Armbruster in the Senate, covers eastern Seneca County, all of Huron, and southwestern Lorain. Amherst attorney Matthew Barrett is back after losing to Ms. Reed in 2004.

In turn, Republicans are aggressively going after the 61st District, a suburban Canton, Republican-leaning district that Rep. John Boccieri (D., New Middletown) is leaving vulnerable to run for state Senate. Brant Luther, an Alliance city councilman and attorney, and Carrollton attorney Mark Okey will square off.

Democrats are also looking at the 72nd District seat to which Rep. Ross McGregor (R., Springfield) was appointed after moderate Republican Merle Grace Kearns resigned to join Governor Taft's cabinet.

Others Republican targets, grudge matches of their own, are freshman Rep. Tim Cassell (D., Madison) in Lake County's 63rd District; Rep. Lorraine Fende (D., Willowick) in the neighboring 62nd District; and Rep. Brian Williams (D., Akron) in the 41st. These competitive districts were all taken from Republicans two years ago.

The GOP hopes Mr. Cassell's no-contest plea for drunken driving early this year will be the difference in that race.

Republicans are also targeting the open seat in the Mansfield-based 73rd District, a traditionally Republican-performing district that had been sending conservative Democrat Rep. Bill Hartnett to Columbus. Democratic hold on this seat has been endangered by term limits.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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