In this "swingiest of swing states," as one Ohioan described the Buckeye State to me recently, no political party has a lock on voters' affections. Politicians have to earn it, election by election. And right now, the advantage that Democrats won in 2008 with Barack Obama's victory and the pickup of U.S. and state House seats is seriously threatened.
If current polls are correct and the election were held tomorrow, it's a good bet the GOP would sweep the board in Ohio, taking back the governorship, at least a couple of U.S. House seats, the state House and hold onto the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican George Voinovich.
Voters in Ohio, either already unemployed or concerned about losing their jobs soon, are angry -- and in a mood to take it out on Democrats.
This manufacturing and heavily union state has lost jobs at a steady clip, and the lousy local economy has become the focus of this election.
The overall unemployment rate in Ohio was 10.3 percent in July, above the national average. But the economy differs significantly depending on where you are in the state. More than half of Ohio's 88 counties had an unemployment rate above 11 percent and a dozen of them were over 13 percent, including Clinton County in southwestern Ohio, which had a July jobless rate of 16.7 percent. Highland and Meigs counties, close to the Kentucky and West Virginia borders, both had rates above 15 percent.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both made appearances in Ohio this past week and are expected to visit at least several more times before the November midterm election in an effort to shore up embattled Democrats.
Obama, who has visited Ohio 10 times since being elected president, gave a speech at Cuyahoga Community College in a Cleveland suburb Wednesday. The president unveiled additional economic measures intended to spark the economy. He also laid into Republicans, specifically House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, who wants to be the next speaker of the House, for having no new policies or ideas and simply pushing tax cuts for the rich.
But some in the invited audience, handpicked by Democratic state officials, were unconvinced. Jackie Capasso, 50, works in the accounting department of a manufacturing facility outside Cleveland that remains open but has downsized significantly and went through a closure scare. Capasso said she has never voted for a Republican for president and normally votes for Democratic candidates. But not this year.
Capasso said she is expecting to vote for former Republican congressman John Kasich for governor over Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland. "We've lost way too many jobs, and whether it's right or wrong he's going to take the fall for it," Capasso said of Strickland.
Obama may be planning to spend so much time in Ohio this election season not only to assist fellow Democrats but also to help his own sagging approval ratings. A recent Ohio poll conducted by Public Policy Polling revealed a startlingly negative view of the Obama presidency. In answer to the question "
Who would you rather have as president: George W. Bush or Barack Obama?," 50 percent said Bush as opposed to 42 percent for Obama. Two groups that preferred Obama were minority voters and those under the age of 30, constituencies it will be critical for the Democrats and Obama to mobilize in this election and in 2012, if they are to carry Ohio.
Joe Biden, who is more popular with union voters and Reagan Democrats than Obama, appeared at a Labor Day parade in downtown Toledo alongside Strickland. The vice president, who sprinted from one side of the street to the other shaking hands, posing for pictures and kissing babies throughout the mile-long route, received an enthusiastic welcome from the crowd. But afterward, talking to some of the same union members who had marched in the parade, it was clear that Strickland and the rest of the Democratic ticket did not have their wholehearted support.
Two members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said they planned to vote Republican. They both declined to give their names because they said "this is a union town" and disloyalty to the Democrats is frowned upon.
One of the men told me he's been out of work since January and 400 of the 1,800 members of his union -- more than 20 percent -- are currently unemployed. Referring to Obama's 2008 call for change, one of the men said: "The first change didn't work. Everything that was promised isn't happening. Something's got to be done."
The Republican Governors Association has been running television ads in Ohio this summer blaming Strickland for the loss of 400,000 jobs in the state. A number of companies have left Ohio for more favorable economic environments in other states. NCR Corp.
, maker of the first mechanical cash register, announced in June that it was relocating from Dayton, its home since 1884, to an Atlanta suburb.
All of the bad economic news is creating a headwind for Democrats and that could have long-term implications for the party's fortunes in the state. It's not just at the top of the ticket that Democrats are in trouble. Right now they hold 10 of the state's 18 U.S. House seats, an increase of three seats from 2006, but defending those seats could prove problematic.
Three Ohio Democratic House freshmen, Steve Driehaus of Cincinnati, Mary Jo Kilroy of Columbus and John Boccieri of Canton, are all running behind their Republican opponents. In addition, several other congressional Democrats, including Marcy Kaptur of Toledo, now in her 14th term, and Betty Sutton who represents a solidly Democratic district that includes Akron, are facing tougher races than they had expected.
Former Republican congressman Rob Portman, who served as U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush administration, is running to replace Voinovich. His Democratic opponent for U.S. Senate is Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, a former state attorney general.
"If Rob Portman wins Ohio as the trade representative for George Bush
, it is, in fact, one of the seven signs that the world is coming to an end," Chris Redfern
, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, told Bloomberg News.
But Portman, like Kasich, is leading in the polls. Although he's no Tea Party candidate -- the GOP in Ohio seems to have largely avoided the Tea Party takeover of Republican primaries that other states experienced -- Portman has spoken to Tea Party groups and he says he believes the movement is a "net positive" for the Republicans this year.
Republicans also seem poised to take back the state House and hold onto their majority in the state Senate. If they control the governorship and both houses of the state Legislature as well as a majority of congressional seats, it would have a major impact on the redistricting of the state following this year's census, when Ohio is expected to lose two U.S. House seats. And that could have a spillover effect in 2012.
In fact, if history is any guide, it's quite likely that this will be the case: In the 51 presidential elections since 1804, Ohio has voted for the winner 43 times and the state has been right in every election since 1964. No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio, and only two Democrats have done so since 1900, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960.