Lessons from Ohio: GOP’s surprise success story

Joel Mowbray
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Posted: Nov 20, 2006 12:00 AM

For those trying to learn election lessons, perhaps as good a place as any to start is in the state that received the most attention two years ago: Ohio. Democrats and liberal outside groups poured money into five targeted races in the Buckeye State, yet Republicans hung onto win four, the only failure the result of picking a scandal-tainted replacement for Abramoff-linked Rep. Bob Ney.

Not only did the four winning incumbents in Ohio survive a bad climate for the GOP nationwide, but also a downright nasty one in their home state, where the outgoing Republican governor has an approval rating in the teens. And while President Bush had carried each of the five contested districts in 2004, this year one-fifth of Bush voters backed Democratic Senator-elect Sherrod Brown.

Unlike many who lost seats in other states, these Ohio-based members believed they were fighting for their political lives. More important, rather than shying away from their largely conservative records, they localized contests.

Most impressive of the Ohio contests was Rep. Steve Chabot in the First District, which is comprised of roughly two-thirds of Cincinnati, and capped off with suburban areas. It is by no means safely Republican, as Bush won just 51% here in both 2000 and 2004. The race didn’t just look good for Democrats on paper, either. Challenger John Cranley is Catholic, pro-life, and in 2005, he was the top vote-getter of 31 candidates seeking 9 at-large slots on the Cincinnati city council.

Given a strong challenger in such a great environment for Democrats, it’s no wonder that Chabot was considered one of the 10 most vulnerable members of Congress. A class of ‘94 member, Chabot has had three real re-election challenges, and he didn’t receive even 55% in any of them. Democrats believed that their best shot in picking off an Ohio incumbent would be by winning over moderates and independents against Chabot, whom National Journal this year named the second-most conservative member of Congress.

Rather than hide his conservative credentials, Chabot embraced them as being what was best for the local community. He figured—correctly, it seems—that consistency on issues demonstrates character and engenders respect. Not much else could explain how he has survived voting against most earmarks, including tens of millions of dollars targeted for his district.

Despite being outspent when all outside expenditures are counted, Chabot won with a surprisingly sturdy 53%.

The other Democratic-targeted Ohio race that has gotten surprisingly little attention was the re-election of Rep. Pat Tiberi. With a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 93 in a district that gave Bush just 51% in 2000 and again in 2004, Tiberi fundraised aggressively knowing he would have a tough fight. His opponent, former Congressman Bob Shamansky, poured in $1 million from his own pocket.

By staying on message—a conservative message—and localizing the race, Tiberi kept Shamansky at arm’s length the entire way. Building on President Bush’s 2-point win here in 2004 by 14 points, Tiberi routed his Democratic foe, 58-42%.

In addition to employing some of the same basic campaign themes, Reps. Chabot and Tiberi also shared the same media consultant, the Ohio-based The Strategy Group for Media. SGM mostly works for conservatives, including Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, and it had a banner night: It retained all of its incumbent clients, and has more GOP incoming freshman than any other firm.

Perhaps the toughest race for an SGM client was for the Congresswoman National Journal deemed the most conservative member, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado. As the chief co-sponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment, Musgrave has earned the ire of liberal groups everywhere—meaning money from various leftist causes poured into the district. Smelling blood, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also pumped in cash.

Just as in Chabot’s race, DCCC leader Rep. Rahm Emanuel recruited a terrific candidate: a sitting Colorado state house member, a woman who is a self-identified evangelical Christian.

Even with a drag at the top of the ticket—the GOP gubernatorial candidate pulled just 41%—and being outspent and subjected to a barrage of attack ads, Musgrave held on for a 3-point victory.

It wasn’t just Reps. Musgrave, Chabot, and Tiberi who ran and won on their conservative credentials; many Democratic challengers did as well. Heath Shuler of western North Carolina, who is pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax, is merely most prominent Democratic challenger who won by emphasizing his independence from the mainstream of his party. Emanuel has emerged as a star because he was able to recruit moderate and even conservative Democrats who could win naturally Republican seats.

In a race with much for Democrats to celebrate, the party’s most notable—and unexpected—failure came in the state where only one of its challengers positioned himself to the right of the party. Too bad for Cranley that his pro-life stance did little win over cultural conservatives who already had a bird in the hand with Chabot.

Once again in 2006, Ohio has proved to be the most interesting state, and (mostly) a win for the GOP. This time, though, the rest of the nation went in a different direction.