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Published: Sunday, 10/22/2006

Ohio reprises role as kingmaker

BY JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

It's not easy being Ohio.

Every four years, the nation drops in and says, hey, pick us a president. And just when you need a year to kick back, relax, and get your Statehouse in order - hey, here come the neighbors again. They want you to choose who runs the U.S. Senate.

You've got some help at least. Political analysts agree eight states will most likely decide who controls the Senate this fall.

If Republicans lose six or more of those races, they cede their majority.

Most years, the numbers would favor a GOP hold.

This is not most years.

All but one of the most competitive seats lie in states with incumbent Republican senators, or with electoral votes that went to President Bush in 2004, or both.

Here in Ohio, where the 2004 vote sealed Mr. Bush's re-election, a two-term, mild-mannered Republican senator named Mike DeWine is locked in the fight of his political life.

Mr. DeWine of Cedarville trails U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D., Avon) by double digits in a batch of public opinion polls released last week. Analysts blame the gap on Republican scandals in Columbus and Washington, voter angst over the Iraq war and the state's economy, and the senator's campaigning style and message.

Joining Mr. DeWine on the nationwide "endangered incumbent" list are GOP Sens. Jim Talent of Missouri, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Conrad Burns of Montana, and George Allen of Virginia. Republicans also risk losing retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's seat in Tennessee.

The GOP's luxury is that it can drop five of those races and still control the Senate. It could lose six and still keep control if Republican Thomas Kean, Jr., upends Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, whom polls suggest is the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent.

Republicans have longer-shot chances of winning Democratic seats in Maryland, Minnesota, Michigan, and Washington.

Democrats have little margin for error - and almost no realistic scenarios where they assemble a majority without a Brown win over Mr. DeWine.

"In the big picture of Senate math," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks elections nationwide for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, "Democrats need Ohio if they're going to win."

Both sides know the stakes. Mr. Brown casts the race as a middle-class crusade against big-business special interests in Washington.

The congressman likes to end stump speeches by telling supporters if they work hard enough before Election Day, every newspaper in the country will carry two headlines on Nov. 8: "Democrats win House, Senate" and "Ohio turns blue."

Mr. DeWine tells voters that Mr. Brown would jeopardize the state's economic rebirth by renegotiating free-trade deals and rolling back some of President Bush's signature tax cuts.

"It is a crucial time in our state's history," the senator said at his annual ice cream social this summer.

"We are either going to move ahead into the future and create hope and opportunities for our families, or we are going to stay back, holding on to a past and economic base that is not geared toward the century in which we are living."

Ms. Duffy and other analysts call Mr. Brown a slight favorite to win the race.

They also favor Democrats Bob Casey, Jr., in Pennsylvania, Jon Tester in Montana, and to a lesser extent, Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island and Senator Menendez in New Jersey.

Mr. Allen, the Republican incumbent, appears to have a slight edge in Virginia. Tennessee and Missouri are toss-ups.

Mr. Brown brought a leading Senate Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, to Cleveland this week to discuss priorities if their party wins control.

Mr. DeWine says not to count him, or the GOP majority, out yet.

"It's going to be a long Election Night," he said recently.

Contact Jim Tankersley at: jtankersley@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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