The Democrats Smell Blood in Ohio

The swing state is the front line, as Dems try to make GOPers' shady dealings an issue in 2006

by Eamon Javers

In the long, hot summer now ending, Ohio radio listeners may have thought they were having heat-induced flashbacks to the 2004 Presidential contest that saturated the state with political ads. Fully 16 months before Ohio's next election, radio spots lambasted Republican Representative Bob Ney for being too cozy with indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And the campaign also ran ads in papers such as The Zanesville Times Recorder and Chillicothe Gazette.

The ads -- some funded by the liberal group Campaign for America's Future, others by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) -- signal that national Democrats want to make Ohio the front line in their battle to turn Republican corruption into a potent issue in 2006 and beyond.

Why Ohio? The Rust Belt bastion has long been dominated by Republicans, who control both Senate seats, the governorship, and 12 of 18 House seats. But a recent rash of GOP scandals has put the party on the defensive.


  Besides the noise about Ney, Democrats have been handed an opening courtesy of Republican Governor Bob Taft, who pleaded no contest on Aug. 18 to four misdemeanor criminal charges for failing to report more than $5,000 worth of golf outings and other gifts from local bigwigs. He was fined $4,000. Now, Taft is fending off calls to resign: A poll by The Plain Dealer in Cleveland found 46% of state voters want him to step down, vs. 44% who think he should stay on the job.

And an investigation continues into activities of Republican fund-raiser Tom Noe, who managed $50 million in state workers' compensation funds, some of which was invested in rare coins. Noe's attorney has acknowledged the fund could have a "valuation shortfall" of up to $13 million. The attorney, William Wilkinson, says his client "has admitted no misconduct in connection with the shortfall."

Democrats see Ohio as a test market for a broader national theme -- namely, that ruling Republicans have become arrogant and corrupt. They intend to link scandals in the state to a string of GOP imbroglios across the country.


  The incidents include Abramoff's indictment on federal fraud charges and the ongoing investigation into whether or not he used his GOP connection to bilk his Indian tribal clients, ethics allegations that have dogged House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), and California Republican Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham's financial relationship with defense contractor Mitchell J. Wade, who bought Cunningham's California home in 2003 and sold it months later for a $700,000 loss. Cunningham has acknowledged backing federal contracts for Wade's company, MZM Inc.

"In Ohio, the Republican Party is in a meltdown over the issue of ethics," says Representative Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the DCCC. At his urging, party surrogates will go on the offensive this fall and try to tag Republicans in selected 2006 House races as captives of special interests. "In the last four years," says Emanuel, "we've seen the people's House become the auction house."

Of course, Emanuel may not be the ideal messenger, since he's the protégé of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, whose regime is enmeshed in an influence-peddling scandal. Emanuel insists that Hizzoner could hardly know everything that goes on at City Hall.


  And national Dems may have a more daunting challenge than they think in making Ohio a linchpin of a corruption campaign against the GOP. While the state swings in Presidential elections, it has often been Heartbreak Hotel for Democratic strategists: In 2004, the Dems' massive ground campaign was bested by a better-organized Republican opposition, despite a rotten state economy.

"Some Democrats are beginning to salivate too much," cautions John Green, a University of Akron political scientist. "They still have to make good on their opportunity."

That's where Ney comes in. Democrats see him as a prime target because of his longtime ties with Abramoff. He once placed remarks in the Congressional Record critical of an Abramoff business rival, Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, who was later executed gangland-style in a case that hasn't been solved. And Ney flew to Scotland with Abramoff to golf at the famous St. Andrews course in 2002, a trip allegedly paid for by Abramoff clients through a foundation. Ney now says he doesn't really like golf: "I don't even own a set of clubs," he told BusinessWeek. "I'm not a golf freak."


  Ney says he has done nothing wrong and put the Boulis remarks, which his staffers thought were innocuous, into the Congressional Record at the request of Michael Scanlon, a PR consultant and Abramoff business pal now under investigation for allegedly defrauding Indian tribes. Ney says he has learned a lesson: "We'll be more cautious about what we put in the Record, you bet we will."

Democrats might have a tough time making the Abramoff connection stick. In interviews with voters in Ney's district, few were aware of the controversy, despite the ad campaign. "Washington always makes the faulty assumption that what's important inside the Beltway is important to the rest of the country," says Ohio GOP Political Director Jason Mauk. "If [Democrats] want a case study for why they continue to lose elections, Ohio is a good place to take a hard look."

In more serious trouble is Taft, who has been rebuffing calls to resign before his term expires in January, 2007. Even though the two-term governor won't be on the ballot in 2006 because of term limits, expect the eventual Democratic candidate to use the Taft scandal as a reason to toss the GOP out of power. The headlines could have staying power: Investigators a re continuing their probe of Taft's relationship with Noe, and Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, a Republican, says more criminal charges against political officials could be coming.

For now, Democrats are gleefully piling on: The Democratic National Committee recently issued a press release detailing GOP ethics flaps around the country. The headline: "An Episode of The Sopranos?"

Javers covers Congress for BusinessWeek from the Washington bureau

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