Ohio Political Climate Favors Democrats in 2006
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
As the debate continues today, a federal judge holds a hearing over just who will surely vote. Ohio now requires voters to provide identification. Six days before the election there's confusion over what ID you need for an absentee ballot. The confusion over the rules is not stopping both parties from fighting for every vote. The state could affect the fall election, not to mention the election after that.
NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson turns her microphone on a bellwether state.
MARA LIASSON: Here's what the campaign in Ohio sounds like on the air.
(Soundbite of multiple campaign ads)
Unidentified Announcer #1: Ted Strickland just doesn't measure up to being governor.
Unidentified Announcer #2: Does Mike DeWine deserve another chance?
Unidentified Announcer #3: Sherrod Brown has failed in every job he's had.
Unidentified Announcer #4: Our veterans - who can they count on? Not Deborah Pryce.
LIASSON: But on the ground, which is where elections in Ohio are won or lost, the campaign sounds like this.
Mr. CLIF KELLEY (Grassroots 21): …10:00 a.m. in the law school auditorium on campus. Then a more serious announcement is that in my garage are 10 yard signs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LIASSON: That's Clif Kelley. He'll be 90 soon. A few years ago he and his wife, Pat, started a local Democratic club called Grassroots 21. They put out a newsletter and held rallies. The weekly meetings in the Kelly's living room got bigger and bigger, Clif Kelley says, as Democrats got angrier and angrier about the war, the economy and at Republican rule.
Mr. KELLEY: We're a lot more active today than we were in 2004. And we're a lot better organized than we were then. And I think the intensity of feeling is greater.
LIASSON: In 2004, President Bush won Ohio by a mere 60,000 votes. It was an excruciating loss for Democrats. They got out their vote, surpassing all their turnout targets, only to be humiliated as the Republicans did even better. Now, Democrats are ready for a rematch. But an hour west of the Kelly's Columbus suburb, in the offices of Dayton Right to Life, there's another set of grassroots activists working hard to turn out a completely different set of voters.
Unidentified Woman (Dayton Right to Life): …I'm a volunteer for Ohio Dayton Right to Life. And we're just calling to remind you to vote your values on November 7th.
LIASSON: In 2004, pro-life voters and religious conservatives helped Republicans win Ohio. But this year, it's harder to get these voters excited, according to Christi Dodson, the executive director of the Life Resource Center in Dayton.
Ms. CHRISTI DODSON (Executive Director, Life Resource Center, Dayton, Ohio): People are discouraged. And I think, unfortunately, they're getting the message that their vote doesn't matter at this point. They're not hearing that their candidate is doing well. So I think the energy is not there like I saw in 2004. And I think when you are surrounded by some scandals and you get disappointed in your legislators - that's tough.
LIASSON: The candidate with the most conservative profile on social issues, Republican Ken Blackwell, is running way behind Democrat Ted Strickland in the governor's race. And that is discouraging to Christian conservatives. But Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck thinks there are other reasons these voters may not deliver for the GOP this year.
Professor PAUL BECK (Political Science, Ohio State University): 2004, in some ways, was a one time only effect. Bush was a very attractive candidate to them. The gay marriage amendment was on the ballot. There were a variety of reasons for them to come out and vote. And the mood and the climate is very different today in 2006.
LIASSON: Very different and very difficult for Republicans. Ohio's economy is struggling and Ohio Republicans have been snarled in scandal. Bob Bennett has been the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party for the last 18 years. In that time, no Democrat has been elected governor. But Bennett knows his winning streak is about to end.
Mr. BOB BENNETT (Chairman, Ohio Republican Party): We have our challenges this year, and we're probably not going to have as good a year as we've had in those years. But I think we'll have a lot of surprises on election day when it comes to a turnout, and whose going to win some of the races.
LIASSON: Bennett is counting on the Republican secret weapon, which is right downstairs from his office in Republican Party headquarters in Columbus.
(Soundbites from Republican phone bank)
Unidentified Man #1: The Democrats are hoping you'll stay home on Election Day.
Unidentified Woman #1: The Democrats are hoping you'll stay home on Election Day.
Unidentified Man #2: The Democrats are hoping you'll stay home on Election Day. Please don't give them what they want.
Unidentified Man #3: Please don't give them what they want.
Unidentified Woman #2: Please do not give them what they want. Instead, join me in supporting the entire Republican team next Tuesday.
LIASSON: This Republican phone bank is a key part of the Republican's vaunted Get Out To Vote machine. It earned its superhero status right here in Ohio in 2004, when it turned out more Republican voters - mostly in rural and ex-urban counties - than the Democrats ever imagined was possible.
Mr. JASON MAUK (Political Director, Ohio Republican Party): We really never let up on 2004. We went right into the 2006 election year. And I think we've benefited from keeping that machine well-oiled.
LIASSON: That's Jason Mauk, the Ohio Republican Party's political director.
Mr. MAUK: I remember reading accounts about the 2004 election in which some of John Kerry's operatives were saying, those Republicans just produced more Republican voters. It was like they were zombies coming out of the hills. And that's true to a great extent. We did not win in 2004 because we turned out more Independents or more Democrat voters. We've won because we turned out more Republicans. And that has been our ongoing strategy - is to build the Republican base and we've been doing it ever since the least election.
LIASSON: But Democrats in Ohio are determined never to be out-organized again.
Unidentified Woman #3: This is a list you could start out with, it will be two pages.
LIASSON: Just a few blocks away, at Democratic Party headquarters in Columbus, operatives are training volunteers to recruit other volunteers.
Unidentified Woman #4: So, if they're willing to do that, try and get a time of day, or get their schedules so you'll know what to sign them up for.
Unidentified Woman #5: Okay, great. Thank you.
Unidentified Woman #4: Thank you. And all the way down here, this way.
LIASSON: Democratic State Party chair Chris Redfern, explains how his party went to school on the Republicans.
Mr. CHRIS REDFERN (Chairman, Democratic State Party): We're taking this notion that the Republicans have created - that if you use the neighborhood folks to talk to neighborhood folks, you're going to be successful.
LIASSON: And there are other changes in the Democrat's ground game. In 2004, Democrats basically outsourced their get out to vote operation to the independent groups who came into Ohio. Those groups are back this year, but Redfern isn't relying on them.
Mr. REDFERN: We had a collection of left-leaning organizations coming in to Ohio, with paid staffers, often times from outside the state and engaging voters - not even being able to pronounce Lima, Ohio - that's the first warning. But we've pushed back on that approach. So now our strategy is Ohio-based with Ohio Wins, and I think we're going to be successful.
LIASSON: This year, Ohio Democrats decided to pay attention to those rural counties that John Kerry ignored in 2004, and Redfern boasts that just like the Republicans, Democrats are micro-targeting voters.
list of Ohio Democrats with hunting licenses, who voted in the last three elections. Being able to build on that kind of information matters, he says, if Democrats are to get as good as the Republicans at turning out their vote.
Mr. REDFERN: Which means you're not only just going to be successful for governor's race now or a U.S. Senate race. We're going to be able to control county, our councils, and city councils next year, and build up towards the '08 cycle with a professional modern political organization.
LIASSON: And that's just what the two parties are pouring money and operatives into Ohio to do. Not just win this year, but get set to win next year and the year after that, in the once and future battleground state of Ohio.
Mara Liasson, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: You can get projections of possible winners in critical House races at NPR.org. It is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.