Ohio's 18th: Analyzing Rep. Ney's Reelection Fight
But what does Ney's victory mean? Is it a sign that his base is aligning behind him, despite the fact that the lawmaker is caught up in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal? And on the Democratic side, does the semi-upset victory by attorney Zack Space in this week's primary a neutral, negative or positive development in determining Ney's political fate this November?
The rhetoric was thick on all of these topics yesterday as both sides asserted that the primary results suggest a win for their side in the fall. Let's go inside the numbers -- and inside the winning campaigns' strategies -- to cut through the spin (with apologies to Bill O'Reilly, of course.)
Past history in the 18th, which we tend to view as the best way to put the current race in perspective, does not provide much guidance.
Ney has never had a primary challenger, so it's impossible to make a direct comparison between this race and past primaries. Some observers use the last midterm election (2002) as a guide. In that race, in which he was unopposed, Ney received 33,683 votes; this week in the primary he received 34,151 votes. If you count the 15,789 votes that Harris won, the total number of Republican votes cast in the 2006 primary was a 28 percent increase from 2002.
But trying to use 2002 as a guide doesn't work for several obvious reasons. First, Ney had a primary challenge in 2006; he did not in 2002. Second, and as importantly, there was a competitive Republican gubernatorial primary at the top of the ticket on Tuesday, while four years ago Gov. Bob Taft (R) was unopposed for the party's nomination. A competitive statewide primary at the top of a party's ticket almost always has a trickle-down turnout effect on down-ballot races.
How about comparing votes cast in the Republican primary with votes cast in the Democratic primary? As we noted above, a total of 49,940 votes were cast on the GOP side compared with 46,682 cast on the Democratic side. Ney loyalists assert that the 3,300 vote disparity signals his ability to turn out his base. But observers can also make the opposite case -- that the rough parity in the votes is a warning sign for Ney since the district went strongly for President George W. Bush in 2004 (giving the president a 14-point margin over John Kerry).
With history offering little help, determining just what Ney's 68 percent win means is difficult.
On one hand, roughly 33 percent of the Republican primary electorate chose Harris, who spent no money and ran no real campaign, over Ney who is universally known in the district. Mark Riddle, who handled the media for Democrat Zach Space's campaign, said the fact that one-third of Republican voters went against Ney was the "most telling" development. "There was clearly a protest vote against Bob Ney," said Riddle. "The challenge is to get those disenfranchised voters who are Republicans to go with the Democratic candidate."
Not so, according to Ney spokesman Brian Walsh, who argued that two factors explain his boss's 68 percent showing -- attacks by Space and his primary opponent (Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer), coupled with Ney's moderate Republican credentials.
"The Democrats, both Sulzer and Space, but even more importantly a number of well funded 527 and 501(C)4's, ran a very extensive negative ad campaign against Ney," said Walsh. He said that a wide variety of groups -- ranging from Campaign for America's Future to MoveOn.org -- attacked Ney in the primary but that the congressman chose not to respond with a single radio or television ad, choosing instead to focus his resources on the general election.
And, according to Walsh, Ney traditionally underperforms among the party's most conservative voters because of his divergence on traditional GOP stances on budget measures and trade bills. Those positions, however, have won support for Ney among labor groups in the district and allowed him to win over Democrats and independents in past elections, Walsh said. As evidence he noted that Bush carried the district with 57 percent of the vote in 2004, nine points below Ney's 66 percent showing.
And what of the Democratic nominee? Republicans, Walsh included, sought to cast Space as the second-choice of national Democrats who early on had aligned behind Sulzer.
Riddle said Space entered the primary late because his wife was running for reelection as a municipal court judge, a race she won with 64 percent of the vote. Space, Riddle said, is actually a better match-up with Ney: Space is not a "career politician" and ran his primary campaign totally centered on ethics. "[Space] is a very credible messenger on ethics," Riddle said.
In a memo released Wednesday morning, Walsh took issue with the idea that Space has a clean bill of health on ethics, pointing out that Space accepted a $2,000 donation from John Cafaro, "who pleaded guilty in 2001 to bribing former Congressman James Traficant," according to the memo.
One last point of debate between the two sides -- money. Space raised just over $145,000 in the primary, a decidedly lackluster figure, and he will start the general election with almost no money in the bank. Ney, on the other hand, had $474,000 on hand as of April 12.
Space must demonstrate an ability to raise significant sums, although The Fix tends to agree with Riddle's assessment that Ney is going to be "one of the top targets -- if not the top target -- for Democrats" nationally and, as a result, the money will be there for Space.
After sorting through all the vote tallies and the spin, here's our take: The primary proves little either way. Heading into Tuesday's election, Ney was the most vulnerable incumbent in the country. Coming out of the primary, he's in the same place -- no better but certainly no worse.
To our mind, the identity of the Democratic nominee is relatively unimportant as long as Ney is on the ballot, which, by the way, Walsh insists he will be, brushing aside speculation that Ney might follow Tom DeLay's lead and resign.
The race remains a referendum on Ney. Does the smell of scandal in the Abramoff case stick to him, or do voters in Ohio's 18th pick their candidate based on more local concerns? And will Ney be indicted -- or exonerated -- before the election?
These are the questions we don't have answers to at the moment. What we do know is that this will be one of the top races in the country and one Democrats must win if they hope to make a real run at regaining a House majority in the fall.
May 4, 2006; 6:01 AM ET
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