COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Maryland borders Pennsylvania, which borders Ohio, which borders Michigan. In that swath of America, extending 950 miles from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay to the shores of Lake Superior, this year's politics could produce a remarkable quartet of Republican victories -- black U.S. senators from Maryland (Michael Steele, who now is lieutenant governor) and Michigan (Keith Butler, a former Detroit city councilman, currently pastor of a suburban church with a congregation of 21,000), and black governors in Pennsylvania (Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steeler) and Ohio (Ken Blackwell, currently secretary of state).
Blackwell is particularly noteworthy because he has had the most varied political career -- a city councilman at 29, mayor at 31, national chairman of Steve Forbes' 2000 presidential campaign. And because he is the most conservative.
Polls suggest that Blackwell, 57, can win the Republican primary May 2. National party leaders think that only he can keep the governorship Republican, because the state GOP establishment has been hostile to him, and Ohio voters are now robustly hostile to it.
He annoys the establishment because he, unlike it, believes things. He believes that the establishment is proof of a conservative axiom: Any political group or institution that is not ideologically conservative will become, over time, liberal. That is so because, in the absence of a principled adherence to limited government, careerism -- the political idea of the unthoughtful -- will cause incumbents to use public spending to purchase job security.
In 1998, party elders pressured Blackwell into stepping aside to clear the path to the governorship for Bob Taft -- great-great-grandson of a U.S. attorney general, great-grandson of a president, grandson and son of U.S. senators. Today, Taft's job approval has plunged to 18 percent among Republican voters. The rest of the electorate is more hostile. Republicans hold 12 of 18 U.S. House seats and both Senate seats. Unfortunately for Ohio Republicans, they also control both elected branches of the state government and their record of scandals and un-Republican governance -- substantial tax and spending increases -- have Blackwell, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound former college football player (Xavier University in Cincinnati), running against his party's record.
Ohio's state and local tax burden, which was among the nation's lowest in the 1970s, is now the nation's seventh heaviest ($3,906 per capita). Blackwell blames taxes, lawsuit abuse and regulatory confusion for Ohio's ranking 47th in job creation, with a rate last year less than one-seventh of the national rate. Since January 1999, the beginning of the Taft years, Ohio has lost 210,000 manufacturing jobs. "We have become," Blackwell says, "one of the leading re-populators of other states." One in particular: He says that every 24 hours 65 Ohioans become Floridians.
He appeals to small-government conservatives by proposing a constitutional cap on state spending, and even leasing the Ohio Turnpike to private investors. His cultural conservatism has won him such intense support from many church leaders, some liberals are contemplating recourse to an American sacrament -- a lawsuit. It would threaten the tax-exempt status of churches deemed too supportive of Blackwell.
He appeals to blacks by being black, and because many blacks are cultural conservatives: George W. Bush won 16 percent of Ohio's black vote in 2004. In Blackwell's three statewide races, he has received between 30 percent and 40 percent of the black vote. If in November he duplicates that, he will win, and Democrats in many blue states will blanch because if their share of the black vote falls to 75 percent, their states could turn red.
His opponent, Congressman Ted Strickland, is evidence that Democrats have been educated by electoral disappointments. Strickland represents a culturally conservative district that extends from the Ohio River almost to Youngstown, a district Bush carried by just two points in 2000 and 2004. The son -- one of nine children -- of a steelworker, Strickland is reliably liberal on most matters but also has the NRA's A rating and voted to ban partial-birth abortions.
Control of the U.S Senate in 2007 could turn on whether Mike DeWine, a second-term Republican, is re-elected. He does not thrill conservatives, so he needs Blackwell on the ballot to arouse the party's base. Furthermore, the next presidential election, like the previous one, might turn on a close contest for Ohio's 20 electoral votes, a contest in which the governor, whoever he is, might make the difference. Which is why Ohio's gubernatorial election may be the most consequential this year.