Why Ohio Is Shaky Terrain for Democrats

A construction crew rebuilding sidewalks along the main road into Wilmington, Ohio, one August afternoon choked traffic and kicked up dust in the late-summer heat. Projects like this and other ventures funded by last year's $814 billion economic stimulus package generated about 21,000 jobs in Ohio in the second quarter of 2010 alone. Dan Stewart isn't impressed. "From the time they put up the first barricades, downtown has been dead," says Stewart, 60, who runs a bookstore a block from the Clinton County courthouse. "The orange barricades said, 'Wilmington is closed.' "

The electorate is so grouchy and disillusioned in this southwest Ohio town of 12,000 that even a federal project delivering jobs is cause for griping. It's the kind of environment Democrats seeking to retain control of the U.S. Congress face pretty much across the state. The issues roiling the nation—unemployment, the housing slump, slow growth, deficits—dominate here. The jobless rate in Ohio was 10.3 percent in July, compared with a national average of 9.6 percent. (Over the last decade, Ohio has lost about 400,000 factory jobs, 40 percent of the state's manufacturing workforce.)

The $1 billion surplus the state government ran in June 2005 turned into a $1.13 billion deficit last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. More than a quarter of subprime mortgage loans in Ohio were delinquent for 90 days or more in the second quarter. No surprise, then, that Obama and his advisers chose to visit Cleveland on Sept. 8 to urge Congress to permanently extend a research-and-development tax credit for businesses.

Ohio has so many close state and federal races that any pattern here is likely to reflect broader, national trends in the contests for control of Capitol Hill. "It's a mixture of old and new, rural and urban, industry and agriculture," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan The Rothenberg Political Report, which handicaps congressional and gubernatorial elections.

As many as five congressional seats held by Democrats are up for grabs. Among them, U.S. Representatives Steve Driehaus and Mary Jo Kilroy, both first-term Democrats, must coax the students and black voters who propelled them into office back to the voting booth without Obama on the ticket. Democratic Governor Ted Strickland faces a tough reelection. Almost 400,000 jobs have been erased since he took office in 2007.

Republicans need to retain the seat held by retiring U.S. Senator George Voinovich if they want to boost their chances of winning control of that chamber from the Democrats. Their candidate, Rob Portman, the top international trade official under former President George W. Bush, is vying to succeed Voinovich in a state that continues to lose jobs to overseas rivals. "If Rob Portman wins Ohio as the trade representative for George Bush, it is, in fact, one of the seven signs that the world is coming to an end," says Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

Obama has visited Ohio 10 times since he became President, trying to keep supporters on board. In May he was in Youngstown talking about a federal transportation grant. In June he was back in Columbus to talk about the 10,000th road-building project financed by the bill. And last month he sat around the kitchen table of a Columbus family listening to people express their concerns about the economy. The payoff: Obama's approval rating has fallen 17 points, to 46 percent, over the last year, according to the most recent Ohio Poll conducted by the University of Cincinnati.

The bottom line: Democratic candidates face a tough time in Ohio, home to a severe housing slump, big deficits, and high unemployment.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.