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Ohio: Parties Gear Up for Early Fight in 6th District

State Sen. Charlie Wilson's failure to qualify for the Democratic primary ballot in the race for Ohio's open 6th District seat has accelerated campaigning by both parties.

On the Democratic side, Wilson is working to win the May 2 Democratic primary as a write-in candidate. Republicans, meanwhile, are beginning to unload their vaunted opposition research in hopes of defeating Wilson's write-in effort, thus ending the general election before it even starts.

In an interview with The Fix last week in Washington, Wilson expressed confidence that he would overcome the challenges posed by running a write-in candidacy -- a hurdle created when he failed to submit 50 valid signatures to qualify for the Democratic primary ballot.

"I truly believe that we can make the right moves and do the right things to get on this ballot," he said. The other Democrats running for the office are Bob Carr and John Luchansky -- both of whom are little-known in the district. Neither has filed a financial report with the Federal Election Commission, meaning that they had not raised $5,000 as of the last filing deadline. Wilson had $437,000 in the bank at the end of 2005.

The first step in Wilson's campaign will be a district-wide direct mail and television effort aimed at educating the district's voters about both himself and the mechanics of voting for him in the primary. "We are going to try and do as much as we can to educate the voter," said Wilson. He noted that voting machines in several counties in the district are new, which Wilson argued "will play to our advantage" because voters will be looking for guidance about how to handle the new technology. New machines, however, also raise the possibility that people will be too confused or frustrated to write in a candidate whose name does not appear on the ballot.

What Wilson cannot control is the looming presence of the National Republican Congressional Committee. NRCC aides have long promised that elements of Wilson's professional and personal past will come to light in the campaign and effectively disqualify him in the eyes of voters. While that barrage was expected to come after Labor Day this year, the NRCC has clearly sped up that timetable as they see an opportunity to keep Wilson entirely off the ballot and save money in the fall.

The leading edge of the NRCC's opposition research appeared earlier this week in a story that ran in the Youngstown Vindicator detailing Wilson's concern about the impact on his political career of a decision to dump raw sewage into the Ohio River in the mid 1980s. According to the Vindicator story, Wilson served on the board of the Eastern Ohio Regional Wastewater Authority that authorized the dumping. In a conversation with a former Authority employee, Wilson said "this has Pandora's Box written all over it ... I'm gonna take a fall because of this."

Wilson and national Democrats insist the attack has proven ineffective in past campaigns and will not effect the race this time either. "Desperation is the only explanation," said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "National Republican Party operatives are going after Charlie Wilson with their angry, negative, personal attacks because they apparently feel they have no other choice," she said, noting that Wilson has a hefty edge in a recent poll conducted for his campaign.

The poll, which was conducted for Wilson by Alan Secrest in mid-January, had Wilson leading state Rep. Chuck Blasdel (the likely Republican nominee) 42 percent to 26 percent. More daunting for Republicans was the generic ballot test that had a Democrat receiving 52 percent of the vote to 28 percent for a generic Republican.

The NRCC, however, has a proven record of using opposition research to dismantle Democratic candidates (Jim Humphreys, Linda Chapin and Champ Walker jump immediately to mind), and operatives at the committee insist that Wilson has never before experienced the onslaught of paid media that will be unleashed on him between now and May 2.

If Wilson can withstand those attacks, and with the expectation that any and all of his dirty laundry will be aired over the next seven weeks, he could well gain momentum for the general election. But it remains an open question as to whether he can weather the coming storm.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 7, 2006; 3:37 PM ET
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Posted by: Timothy | June 30, 2006 12:43 AM | Report abuse

Andy R.,

I point you to the NY-1 primary election in 2000 to show how the Republican Party can influence a Democratic primary.

This race isn't over, but Wilson sure does look like a buffoon. My understanding is his family was running the campaign, but I have also learned things have changed.

Posted by: Silent Cal | March 8, 2006 8:25 AM | Report abuse

The Ohio GOP is screwed. They stand to lose A LOT of elected offices this year. The only way for them to win is to make sure Wilson is not on the ballot in November. The smear tactics won't work - not in the primary at least - b/c his opponents have no name recognition.

Posted by: Ohio guy | March 7, 2006 7:42 PM | Report abuse

Nice work, Chris. This article continues the meme of how much Democrats need to fear the RNC's negative attack ads and campaigning.

I'm sure the RNC can count on you to give those attacks - whether true or not - front page play in the Washington Post.

Looking forward to your detailed analysis of how devasting those charges are to Wilson. Will you run the story the minute the RNC sends out the press release. Or will you wait a couple of hours?

Posted by: Nice extension of the theme | March 7, 2006 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Its very revealing that the RNC is starting this early to attack Wilson especially since he has not even won the primary. It makes the RNC look desperate & as thought they can't beat him in the general election.

Posted by: Andrew | March 7, 2006 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Time is detrimental to an attack based campaign. Negative campaigning hurts in the short term, but voters tend to forgive and forget when they are bombarded by negative adds for 8 months.
Also I don't see how serious Democrats (the type that vote in Primaries) are gonna care about what Republicans say about there candidate. If anything Wilson could use this to say "The RNC is petrified of me running on the ballot because they know I'll win"

Posted by: Andy R | March 7, 2006 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I like Wilson but there is no excuse for not being able to qualify for a primary ballot. If his campaign can't manage something as basic as that, how is he going to stand up to the Republican attack machine?

Posted by: Intrepid Liberal | March 7, 2006 4:21 PM | Report abuse

If NRCC ends up front loading the spending in this race and Wilson manages to get onto the ballot via the write-in, they will be in serious trouble-

A) NRCC will have to spend more money in the fall
B) If the charges don't stick, they will have to devise new strategies to take Wilson down.

Confusion with new ballot machines will present an additional hurdle but Wilson can be smart and offer "instruction guides" not only on how to operate the new machines but how to add write-in candidates.

Posted by: RMill | March 7, 2006 4:13 PM | Report abuse

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