Ohio Shaping Up As Battleground in 2010

President Obama and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland i i

hide captionPresident Obama and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland share a laugh last October when Obama was on the campaign trail. Next year, Strickland faces an expected tough battle against former Republican Rep. John Kasich. The slumping economy could hurt Democrats in the midterm elections.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland

President Obama and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland share a laugh last October when Obama was on the campaign trail. Next year, Strickland faces an expected tough battle against former Republican Rep. John Kasich. The slumping economy could hurt Democrats in the midterm elections.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Leading up to Election Day on Tuesday, the governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, along with New York's 23rd Congressional District, are getting most of the attention.

On the eve of this year's vote, however, many are already eyeing next year's midterm elections, which are sure to be an even greater referendum on President Obama.

And no place will be watched more closely than Ohio. A perpetual battleground in presidential elections, Ohio's midterms in 2010 boast several marquee races that will help determine the balance in the U.S. House and Senate.

The 2010 lineup in Ohio includes an expected tough battle between first-term Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and former Republican Rep. John Kasich, who is using the race as his return to politics.

Also in the Buckeye State, the retirement of Republican Sen. George Voinovich means a U.S. Senate seat is up for grabs. And three brand new Democratic representatives, each of whom rode Obama's coattails to victory in longtime GOP districts last year, will have to demonstrate how they've made a difference for the folks back home.

'Doing The Best He Can'

At the center of it all is Ohio's still-slumping economy, where the unemployment rate tops 10 percent, with no sign of a quick turnaround.

Among the jobless is 27-year-old pipe fitter Russell Osborne, who last week attended a 2009 "Get Out The Vote" event with his wife at Plumbers & Pipefitter Local Union 189, not far from downtown Columbus. For Osborne, it was a grim anniversary of sorts.

"Friday will be seven weeks for me laid off," he says.

Osborne says he is drawing unemployment compensation for the first time in his life. He has two daughters and is renting his home. He says he is thankful that he has a landlord who understands his situation.

His wife, Britney, 26, says it's stressful "just worrying, you know, the normal stuff. You've got two kids to support and now not knowing when he's gonna be able to go back."

Still, the Osbornes remain committed Obama supporters.

"A lot of people give Obama a hard time because it's almost been a year and they don't see a whole lot that's happened," Russell Osborne says.

But, he adds, the president came into office confronting a lot besides just the economy. He cites H1N1 flu and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while he says he is frustrated about his own situation, the president is "doing the best that he can and I really think that there are things moving in a positive way."

A Lower Approval Rating In Ohio

But for Ohio Republicans, the assessment of Obama is more, "I told you so."

"I am very, very concerned about the future," says Bob Schwartz, an equine veterinarian in Fayette County. "This huge debt is what I'm most concerned about. I have a problem with bailing out certain industries. I don't like to see the government nationalize General Motors or the banks. I think it's a bad direction for the country to go."

Obama's approval rating in Ohio is 52 percent, according to a poll released last week by the University of Cincinnati Institute for Policy Research. That's 11 points lower than it was six months ago. Additionally, more than half of all Ohioans now disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy.

That could hurt Democrats in the midterm elections by making it hard for them to do what they did last time around: Put the blame for the nation's economic woes on President George W. Bush and the Republicans who backed his policies for eight years.

Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck says Democratic strategists in next year's election will be closely tracking the president's popularity. And he says they'll hope for some big legislative success, such as the passage of a health care overhaul as an offset to the still-anemic economy.

The Obama Effect

But Beck points out another major concern for Democrats: voter enthusiasm.

Last year, Democrats up and down the ticket all across the country were buoyed by the tremendous excitement generated by the Obama candidacy. Young people and minorities were especially energized.

Beck says the question for 2010 is how much a falloff in enthusiasm hurts Democratic candidates next year when Obama is not at the top of the ticket.

In the Franklin County Democratic Party offices in downtown Columbus, a picture of Obama when he was an Illinois state senator hangs on the wall. In the photo, a younger — and less gray — Obama shakes hands with Franklin County Democratic Chairman William Anthony.

Anthony can't help but smile as he looks at the photo. He laughs and says that at the time he couldn't even begin to imagine what the future would hold for Obama.

Then, turning his thoughts to next year's midterms, he says the Obama-fueled excitement of 2008 can't — and won't — be repeated. But, he says, voters still need to know that they have to participate in every single election to hold on to gains they've made.

"I'm concerned about voter apathy," Anthony says. "I'm concerned about low voter turnout. I'm concerned about folks that just give up on it, go back to life as normal."

Both Parties Gear Up For 2010

As for what can happen to his party in 2010, Anthony says it's the nature of this battleground state that either party can win the governorship, the U.S. Senate and those three congressional districts that Democrats were so thrilled to capture last election.

"Just 'cause we won don't mean we're going to continue to win," he says. "I mean we could lose everything — or we could retain it."

But, he says, doing so will take work, and organization and energy. And recent polls show that Republican voters are more enthusiastic about their prospects for next year than Democrats are.

Meanwhile, Franklin County Republican Chairman Douglas Preisse sees opportunity for his party next year. While acknowledging that GOP losses in 2006 and 2008 were deserved, he says, "We think we've bottomed out. The pendulum has swung. And I also think there's been a wake-up call across central Ohio — maybe a little buyer's remorse, too, about what's going on in Washington."

Preisse says there's reason for optimism among Republicans, especially in Ohio, where he thinks Democratic incumbents will be vulnerable.

Both parties are already gearing up for 2010. Grass-roots organizing is under way. Fundraising is in full swing. This is all in advance of street canvassing and door knocking that will start sometime after the first of the year. Then the inevitable barrage of TV advertising begins — and eventually the high-profile visits by the likes of Obama and top Republicans.

For now, look for campaign strategies to follow a predictable script. Ohio Republicans will try to capitalize on the voter discontent that's been their worst enemy the past two elections. Democrats will try to hang on to those voters who so eagerly wanted change last year, but may not be seeing enough of it.

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