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Turning Tide?

For Republicans, the narrowness of their party's victory in Tuesday's special election in Ohio's 2nd Congressional District is a wake-up call that gives them plenty of notice before November 2006 that they have very big problems in the Buckeye State.

Next year's Ohio ballot will feature an open governorship, a vulnerable Senate Republican with problems in his own base, and up to eight GOP-held House seats that Democrats could realistically target. Of those eight, not one is remotely as Republican as the 2nd District, where the GOP candidate eked out a 51.7 percent victory to hold the seat vacated by newly sworn-in U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

That the 2nd District is rock-ribbed Republican is beyond dispute. In 2004, President Bush beat John Kerry there by 64 to 37 percent. And The Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index, which measures how a district voted in the 2000 and 2004 presidential election compared with the rest of the country, shows that Republican presidential nominees have fared 13 points better in this district than they did nationwide. That makes the 2nd District the 57th-most-Republican district in the nation and the second-most-Republican in Ohio.

Many factors combined to give the GOP trouble in the special election. Republican former state Rep. Jean Schmidt had narrowly won a hotly contested, 11-way primary in June, defeating Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine (son of U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine) and former U.S. Rep. Bob McEwen with just 31.4 percent of the vote. Democrats nominated Paul Hackett, a major in the Marine Reserves who was just back from Iraq. Hackett's strong criticism of Bush enabled him to tap into national liberal money via the Internet. Liberal blogs fell in love with him, and their support made up for the district's lack of Democratic money.

Schmidt's campaign, which responded to the Democrat too little and too late, seemed caught off guard by Hackett. Hackett fanned reservations about Bush's stances on Iraq and Social Security and charged that Schmidt would be a rubber stamp for Bush. Hackett and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also worked hard to tie Schmidt to embattled GOP Gov. Bob Taft, whose job-approval rating is a dismal 19 percent.

Both national parties seemed to anticipate a fight in this district, but they stayed well under the radar until very late. The DCCC didn't air television ads until the Friday before the election, knowing that the Democrats could not afford a sustained air war with the better-funded National Republican Congressional Committee, which had just gone into the district a few days earlier. Both parties concentrated on phone banks. Overall, the GOP is thought to have spent $500,000, directly and indirectly on the race. Democrats say they spent $250,000, although some Republicans estimate it was more.

Kerry was unable to turn the state's economic problems to his advantage, but the message that it is "time for a change" is resonating in Ohio today. Republicans, who hold every statewide office and have controlled the governorship for four consecutive terms, are now engulfed in a major state government scandal.

Tuesday's result virtually guarantees that the previously moribund Ohio Democratic Party will field competitive candidates for the governorship and U.S. Senate. Rep. Ted Strickland and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman are running for governor. And there is talk of Rep. Sherrod Brown or Rep. Tim Ryan seeking the Senate seat.

In the House, watch Democratic recruiting for races against Republicans representing Ohio districts that voted only 1 percentage point more for Bush than the nation as a whole did: Steve Chabot in the 1st, Pat Tiberi in the 12th, and Deborah Pryce in the 15th. In Steve LaTourette's 14th, the Cook index gives Republicans just a 2-point advantage. In the Dayton-based 3rd District, held by GOP Rep. Mike Turner, the GOP edge is 3 points, while it is but 4 in Rep. Ralph Regula's 16th. Just a bit better off are Bob Ney in the 18th and Dave Hobson in the 7th -- both hold 6-point GOP edges, far less than the 13-point edge that Portman's seat had.

In most elections, even advantages this small are enough to gain an incumbent another term. But these districts are precisely the kind where incumbents get swept away in tsunami years.

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