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Ohio Democrats Look to Obama for New Lifeline as Tea Party Momentum Grows

While some Democrats distance themselves from President Barack Obama because of his sinking job-approval ratings, U.S. Representative Steve Driehaus of Ohio campaigns as if he were the president’s running mate.

“We elected a coach and a team of players,” Driehaus told a dozen voters -- some wearing Obama presidential campaign pins -- gathered in the backyard of a home in a dense, urban neighborhood on Cincinnati’s west side. “We need to keep the team intact.”

Driehaus and more than a dozen other first-term House Democrats who were swept into Congress on a wave of enthusiasm for Obama in 2008 are in danger of losing their seats to Republicans as voters sour on everything from the economy to the health-care law. In Ohio, some candidates are relying on the White House and the state Democratic Party to recreate the campaign apparatus that boosted Obama to victory two years ago.

Ohio offers a window on competitive races taking place across the U.S., including at the state level. Among the vulnerable freshman Democrats are U.S. Representatives John Boccieri and Mary Jo Kilroy, Governor Ted Strickland and members of the house in Ohio’s general assembly, where the party is also fighting to maintain control.

Obama won the Cincinnati-based First District in 2008 by 11 percentage points and Ohio by 4 points. Now, Organizing for America, his political arm outside the White House, has moved back in, focusing on increasing turnout in the black community, which makes up about 27 percent of the district’s voters.

Help From Choir

It hasn’t been easy: Only a handful of black voters came to a health-care town-hall event hosted by Driehaus amid the rundown pews of a one-room Baptist church earlier this month. Attendance was so sparse that Victoria Parks, the African- American field outreach director for Driehaus, headed to another church across the street to recruit additional participants from a gospel choir practice.

“Change is never easy when you don’t know what tomorrow looks like,” Driehaus told the group.

Driehaus’s office didn’t publicize the talk to keep it a neighborhood-oriented event. That also helps to avoid attracting demonstrators, who have shown up at health-care-related gatherings. In March, protesters angry at the legislation threw a rock through the window of the Hamilton County Democratic Party office in Cincinnati and a death threat was phoned into Driehaus’s Washington office.

No Illusions

Democrats say they have no illusions in a year when Tea Party activists are firing up Republican voters and independents are abandoning their party.

“There is no way in hell we are going to get the 2008 turnout,” said Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. “What we have to do is get a better-than- normal gubernatorial turnout.”

Rousseau O’Neal, a pastor working with the Democrats, says a visit by Obama would stoke excitement.

“Me standing in the bush is pretty much like Jeremiah crying in the wilderness,” he said. “If the man speaks through the burning bush himself, without a doubt that would assist greatly.” Obama is planning to hold a campaign rally in the state on Oct. 17, according to the Democratic National Committee.

Counting on Obama

Republicans and allies in the Tea Party, a movement of activists seeking to rein in the power of the federal government, are counting on the president, too: They say nothing is energizing their voters more than his policies. They’re seeking to turn a surge of anti-Obama energy into votes, holding meetings to recruit volunteers, organizing phone campaigns, and making plans to bus voters to the polls.

Even Driehaus, who embraces the president when he appears before small groups of party faithful, pitches himself as an independent voice for the district in the campaign ads he airs on Cincinnati television.

Surveys here, as elsewhere, show Republicans are more engaged. A report by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate found that in primaries for statewide offices throughout the U.S. through Aug. 28, the average Republican vote exceeded that of the Democrats for the first time in midterms since 1930.

Politics Is Local

Still, individual efforts, not just broad trends, will help define the outcome of many races. And Ohio’s First District -- which includes the heavily Democratic, low-income neighborhoods of Cincinnati, Catholic working-class suburbs, and Republican exurbs -- is no exception.

Driehaus, 44, is in a rematch with Steve Chabot, the Republican he defeated in 2008 when Obama’s popularity drew more black voters and university students to support the Democrat. In predominantly black precincts, turnout rose an average of 23 percent in 2008 from 2006, according to data analyzed by Gene Beaupre, a political science professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

Both candidates have deep roots in the southwestern Ohio district, which borders Kentucky and Indiana, even using the colors of their Catholic high schools -- rivals Elder and La Salle -- on campaign signs.

“It’s like two guys on the same block fighting it out,” said Beaupre. “It comes down to a referendum on the Obama Democratic legislative record.”

‘My District’

Chabot, 57, who declared his candidacy less than two months into Driehaus’s term and still refers to the area as “my district,” sees opportunities in Obama’s declining poll numbers.

“With Obama at the top of the ballot, it was a very, very tough year,” he said. “This year, the energy has completely reversed.”

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the contest a tossup.

Chabot links Driehaus to the Democrats’ legislative agenda, citing his votes for the $814 billion economic-stimulus package of 2009 and the health legislation.

Driehaus touts the benefits those bills have brought, like the road projects scattered across the highways that ring Cincinnati. The riverfront has turned into a construction site because of about $25 million in stimulus funds the state allocated to The Banks, a 3-million-square-foot complex of apartments, hotels, offices and parks that the city has spent years developing.

Saving Jet Engine

Driehaus also promotes his efforts to save the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter backup engine being produced locally by General Electric Co. Obama’s budget would cut the program, costing the region about 1,000 jobs. An ad released by the campaign said Driehaus “stood up to his own party” to keep the program going.

Chabot’s campaign said the Republican helped restore $340 million in federal funding for the engine program in 2006, saving hundreds of jobs.

Tea Party activists have rallied behind Chabot, citing his opposition to the 2008 bank bailout as one reason.

Underpinning the political battle is the economy. A diverse economic base has spared Cincinnati some of the pain suffered in cities such as Cleveland. Business leaders say they see signs of a wider recovery in a city that’s home to Procter & Gamble Co., Macy’s Inc. and Fifth Third Bancorp. A Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber survey found that 28 percent of businesses plan to expand within the next 18 months, up from 18 percent last year.

‘Hemorrhaging’ Jobs

At the same time, unemployment in the metropolitan area was 9.8 percent in July, compared with August’s national rate of 9.6 percent. Home sales nosedived 35 percent in July, according to the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors. And one of every 421 houses in Hamilton County was in foreclosure, a 17 percent increase from June, according to RealtyTrac Inc.

“The jobs are just hemorrhaging,” said Melanie Newstate, a Democrat who lost her employment as an accounting contractor several months ago.

Republicans also spent much of the summer targeting likely supporters and are encouraging them to cast absentee ballots. Volunteers contacted 70,000 voters in a single day, said Jason Mauk, executive director of the Ohio Republican Party.

Mauk said Democrats’ organizational prowess won’t overcome voter discontent. He has some experience: In 2006, Mauk was touting the party’s voter-turnout operation to a reporter a few days before Strickland beat Republican Ken Blackwell by more than 20 percentage points.

Been There

“It was really the only thing we had left to promote,” Mauk said. “This is all they have left to spin. We’ve been where they are.”

As Democrats struggle, Obama is galvanizing the district’s Republicans.

“More and more people are seeing Obama openly as a socialist-leaning person,” said Nita Thomas, an organizer for one of several Tea Party groups in the district. “It’s a flipped energy from 2008.”

At a Tea Party meeting in August, organizers urged supporters to recruit volunteers for Chabot. They plan to bus people to the polls for early voting, a strategy that helped Democrats win in 2008.

When Chabot addressed the crowd, he urged them to stay focused on turnout. “This is more energy, more folks in rooms than we’ve ever seen,” he said, “But we have to make sure everyone turns out this time.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net; Patrick O’Connor in Washington at poconnor14@bloomberg.net.

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