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Ohio: 2006's Ground Zero

After providing the key electoral votes to return George W. Bush to the Oval Office last November, Ohio is once again shaping up to be the country's bellwether in 2006.

The state will play host to an open-seat governor's race, a top-tier Senate race and a slew of seriously contested House races next November.

"Pound for pound, Ohio will be the most important state in next year's midterm elections," said Charlie Cook, a noted political prognosticator (and The Fix's former boss).

While some of that expected competitiveness is due to the political nature of Ohio generally, the ethical cloud surrounding Gov. Bob Taft (R) also plays a major role in Democrats' chances for gains.

This summer Taft was found guilty of four misdemeanor ethics violations for accepting illegal gifts from a number of campaign contributors, including Tom Noe, a coin dealer and a major Republican fundraiser. Noe is currently under investigation for his mishandling of a $50 million rare coin investment that he managed for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.  Noe's attorneys have admitted that as much as $13 million of that total is missing, and the state attorney general has charged Noe with stealing $6 million.

Taft's political career has been damaged by his ties to Noe; a poll conducted by the Columbus Dispatch in late September showed that just 15 percent of respondents had a favorable impression of the job the governor was doing.

"The Republican problems nationally are compounded by scandals in the Republican-controlled state government," said Cook. "The environment in the state is simply toxic for Republicans."

With that as a backdrop, here's a quick primer on the major races to watch in the Buckeye State.

Governor: Rep. Ted Strickland is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, although Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman is also in the contest and campaigning actively.  Republicans have a primary featuring three current statewide elected officials -- not exactly the political bona fides one would want when people see state government as the source of the problem.  Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell (R) appears to be the likely GOP nominee.

Senate: Rep. Sherrod Brown and Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett are battling for the Democratic nomination and the right to take on Sen. Mike DeWine in 2006. Brown seems the early favorite given that he has been elected statewide before (he was secretary of state from 1982 to 1990) and is sitting on more than $2 million in a congressional campaign account that can be transferred to a senatorial bid.  DeWine's vulnerability is wrapped up in simply being viewed as part of the Republican establishment gone wrong.

House: How many seats Democrats can legitimately put in play when filing closes for House races in February should be an early indicator of whether they can make a real case for winning back the majority in 2006. According to Cook's Partisan Voting Index (an aggregate of the 2000 and 2004 presidential election returns district by district), six seats currently held by Ohio Republicans are easily within range of Democrats. The PVI score rates how the district matches up when compared to the 434 other seats in terms of presidential performance. For example, a PVI score of R+2 means that in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the district performed an average of 2 points more Republican than the nation did as a whole.

1st District (PVI R+.5): Democrats have tried to beat Rep. Steve Chabot (R) before (see Roxanne Qualls) to no avail. The party remains optimistic about the chances of landing a serious candidate, but the jury is still very much out.

12th District (PVI R+.7): Rep. Pat Tiberi (R) has not had a serious challenge since winning an open seat race in 2000. Democrats (again) have no declared contenders. 

15th District (PVI R+1.1): Despite the inherent competitiveness of her seat, Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) has held it easily since 1992.  Democrats have recruited Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy into the race and are touting her chances of making a run at Pryce.

14th District (PVI R+2.2): Rep. Steve LaTourette (R) has been an on-again, off-again target for Democrats since winning this seat in 1994. The name on national Democrats' lips is Dan Troy, a Lake County commissioner.

3rd District (PVI R+2.9): Although this seat was long held by Democratic Rep. Tony Hall, the party has ceded it to Rep. Mike Turner (R) since he claimed it in 2002.  No Democratic recruits worth mentioning.

16th District (PVI R+3.6): Rep. Ralph Regula (R) has served in Congress since 1972, and Democrats are hoping that with his chances of chairing the House Appropriations Committee now gone, he will step aside.  Democratic state Rep. William Healey is the likely party standard-bearer.

Keep an eye on 18th District Rep. Bob Ney (R) as well. Democrats believe that his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff will make this a real race despite the seat's strong Republican lean -- Bush won by 14 points last year. Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer is expected to be the party nominee.

Are there recruits we're missing? Potentially competitive districts not listed here? Let us know.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 2, 2005; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Governors  
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