National Republicans enjoyed unprecedented success in the Nov. 5 midterm congressional elections, but as President Bush scans the Midwestern political landscape for sitting governors who can help his 2004 re-election bid, Ohio's Bob Taft is the last man standing.
Mr. Taft easily won re-election, in part on the strength of a big victory in Lucas County that top White House and gubernatorial aides hope will translate into substantial local support for Mr. Bush in two years.
Mr. Taft defeated Democrat Tim Hagan in Lucas County, winning 59 percent of the vote. Four years ago, he won just 37 percent here against Democrat Lee Fisher.
White House political advisers have taken note and have conveyed their interest in Mr. Taft's performance in Lucas County this fall to local GOP leaders. Compared to four years ago, the governor improved his finish here by 22 percentage points - one of the best Republican turnarounds in an urban county anywhere in the country.
Tom Noe, a former GOP county chairman and past contributor to the Bush and Taft campaigns, said regional political director Coddy Johnson contacted him last week to relay congratulations to his wife, Bernadette, who is now in charge of the county Republican Party. The Noes visited Washington last week for a White House policy briefing on issues related to the 2004 election.
Maggie Thurber, who knocked off longtime Democratic county Commissioner Sandy Isenberg on Nov. 5, said she also was contacted by Mr. Johnson, who congratulated her. She said she also received a note from the White House.
“That was really kind of cool, just that they paid attention to us,” she said.
“There's no doubt that anytime a Republican governor wins 59 percent of the vote in a Democratic county, something is going on,” Ms. Noe said. “The White House knows how well Bush played here [in Toledo] in his last two visits. All of a sudden, after the election, we heard from the White House, and they said, `We're looking forward to working with you.'”
President Bush last visited Toledo with Mexican President Vicente Fox on Sept. 6, 2001. Mr. Bush made three campaign stops in the Toledo area on his way to winning Ohio two years ago. By contrast, former Vice President Al Gore abandoned Ohio for the last three weeks before the 2000 election.
The good news for the GOP in Lucas County and statewide in Ohio stands out.
From Pennsylvania to Nebraska, the Taft machine is the only statewide GOP organization left intact from the carnage inflicted by Democrats in gubernatorial races in the region that Ohio Republican Party Chairman Robert Bennett calls “the absolute battleground in the 2004 presidential race.”
The region's map of governors is dominated by Democrats. The party wrested statehouse control from Republicans in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin - states with a total of 69 electoral votes - adding to their existing control of Indiana. In the 11 states that make up the broader Midwest, with the coming of the new year Republicans will control the governor's mansions in only Ohio and Minnesota.
Democratic governors will preside over states that possess 111 electoral votes, compared to the 30 electoral votes in states led by Republicans. The stakes are high - should a 2004 Democratic challenger to Mr. Bush win those states, combined with the New England and West Coast states carried by Mr. Gore in 2000, he would win the presidency.
Ken Mehlman, White House political director, said Ohio is an important player in the President's re-election plan.
“Governor Taft is a good friend and a strong ally of the President. He is somebody who helped him win the state of Ohio in 2000, and we value his help. He shares the President's commitment to education, especially to reading, and to finding innovative ways to solve problems,” Mr. Mehlman said.
Mr. Taft and the Ohio GOP organization will be helpful in devising a strategy for the President to capture the region, but that “ultimately, presidential candidates are judged on their own basis when they run for office,” he said. “There is no doubt that Governor Taft has been very helpful. We believe very strongly that good policy is good politics. We're focused on policy right now. If we do our job right and do it well, the President is going to be in good shape,” Mr. Mehlman said.
Brian Hicks, chief of staff to Governor Taft, said the political machine that has served his boss well in 1998 and 2002 and helped elect a president in-between, is ready and waiting to again serve the occupant of the White House.
“We have a tremendous amount of interaction with the White House politics and policy shops, from Karl Rove on down,” Mr. Hicks said. “There is a real plus to having a president that you get along with. We communicate with the White House on a weekly basis, and oftentimes several times a week.
“It will make Ohio more important. It potentially broadens Governor Taft's role” in Mr. Bush's re-election efforts, Mr. Hicks said. “It will be more of a challenge for the President in states that don't have a Republican governor, that don't have that grass-roots organization that can be just turned on in a short time frame.”
“The battleground in the 2004 election is going to be the Midwest,” said Mr. Bennett. “The challenge is to expand [Bush operations] in those state parties where Democrats have governors.”
For all the Republican planning under way for 2004, Ohio Democrats also are plotting - to play the role of spoiler for Mr. Bush.
“It's a real simple plan,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Dennis White, who expects to devote the next year to building a statewide organization and to recruiting candidates for statewide offices in 2004. The statewide races, he predicted, could become of such interest to Ohio voters that turnout to cast votes in those races could outstrip interest in the national races, including the presidency. His hope is that Democrats motivated to turn out for the statewide races will also vote against Mr. Bush.
“We are going to work with every county organization,” Mr. White said. “It's already started. We're gearing up already. The race for president is important, but so is the rest of the Democratic ticket here in Ohio.”
Locally, most Lucas County officeholders will be on the ballot, including two of the three seats on the county board of commissioners. Democrats will defend both seats, and Ms. Noe, having just acquired the taste of victory in the Thurber-Isenberg battle, has promised competitive challenges for both of those seats. If she keeps her pledge, voter turnout here is likely to be very high.