Salena Zito

LISBON, Ohio – The two-lane Lincoln Highway passes sparkling creeks, tree-lined valleys, coal-mine entrances and mom-and-pop motel lots filled with the muddy trucks of shale-industry workers, on its way to this eastern Ohio town.

Two blocks west of the shining chrome Steel Trolley Diner, a neon-orange “Frack Obama” sign stands out in Lisbon’s otherwise serene Victorian downtown.

This is not your father’s Appalachia. And Barack Obama is not your father’s Democrat – which is a problem for two Democrats running for House seats bordering this highway.

Each man is looking to connect with the voters of two different states, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yet they share the same problem with remarkably similar electorates: running alongside a president who does not share the values of their voters.

In both districts, voters have broken away from Obama, even though they are not quite sold on Republican Mitt Romney.

Charlie Wilson wants his old seat back: From 2006 to 2010, he represented Ohio’s 6th Congressional District, in which Lisbon sits in the middle. Then he lost to Republican Bill Johnson, a man whom no one – not even Washington’s Republicans – thought was going to win.

The seat is composed of 12 counties rich in union workers, Catholics and other traditional Democrats; it borders Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, and has a storied history as a reliable district for Democrats.

That was before Washington’s Democrats made it difficult for Main Street’s moderate Democrats to represent their districts’ mood and make-up.

Bill Johnson says he takes his job as a congressman literally.

“It is my job to reflect the needs, concerns and well-being of this unique community,” he says of the 6th District. “Politics second, people first, and always creating the right environment to create jobs.”

Back on the Lincoln Highway, four dump trucks chug slowly east toward East Liverpool, Ohio, then across the Jennings Randolph Bridge toward West Virginia, then into Western Pennsylvania and the congressional district of Democrat Mark Critz.

Along the way, two billboards blast the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for imposing regulations on the coal industry and accuse it of “Killing Coal.” A handful of homemade signs tell Washington to back off from the shale and natural-gas industry.

Another billboard reminds travelers that God is watching them.

Critz recently knocked off fellow Democrat Jason Altmire in a contentious primary that forced the usually moderate Johnstown native to go further left than the conservative make-up of his newly redrawn district.

In November, Critz faces a tough challenge from Republican businessman Keith Rothfus, who barely lost to the incumbent Altmire in 2010.

Over in Ohio, Wilson’s challenge is of his own making: The moderate Democrat lost the seat in 2010 thanks to his support of President Obama’s health-care bill; that vote, along with stimulus-funding and other votes under then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, remain wildly unpopular in the 6th District.

West Virginia’s panhandle juts between Ohio and Pennsylvania and contains the same voter mindset of those bordering states. West Virginia’s new governor, a southern Mountain State Democrat, said late last week that Obama “has apparently made it his mission to drive the backbone of West Virginia's economy, coal and the energy industry, out of business … destroy(ing) the economic fabric of our state."

Obama is the problem for Critz, Wilson and a score of other Democrats campaigning for House seats across the country.

Republican Johnson won office on an anti-Obama wave – and Obama is still on the ballot. In 2006, House Democrats ran and won against Bush – and then Bush disappeared from the scene two years later.

Neither Critz nor Wilson has such a political luxury this election year.

While the latest Quinnipiac poll shows Obama still ahead of Romney in Pennsylvania, he has plunged in Ohio in a little more than a month in the same poll. Romney does not need to win Pennsylvania but he does need to keep it close; in contrast, Obama does need to win Ohio.

To win back or to hold their House seats, Democrats such as Critz and Wilson not only have to distance themselves from Obama but have to disavow their party’s president.

If they don't, not only will they lose but they will help Romney unseat the president.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.