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Blackwell vs. Strickland -- Part I: Meet the Candidates

By Adam Schaeffer

Ken Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor in Ohio, is fast becoming a Party superstar and a Democratic nightmare. While Republicans slowly dare to hope and Democrats feel their stomachs tighten, I think it is time for a reasoned prediction: Ken Blackwell will be Ohio's next governor.

BLACKWELL, CONSERVATIVE PROPHET

Blackwell is perfectly constructed to weather Ohio's roiling political seas, which have been whipped by the winds of scandal, crime, and economic decline. He's an outsider who was against the Republican Party apparatchiks before the indictments came down. But as Secretary of State, this maverick's an insider as well, with state-wide name recognition, organized support, and a lot of people who have voted for him in previous state-wide races.

Blackwell's a bible-carrying Christian, and conservative churches are energized in support of this unabashedly religious candidate. Social conservatives will turn out in force for the general election. Indeed, Blackwell's opponents are so concerned about this religious conservative enthusiasm that they've complained to the IRS about church support for his candidacy.

But Blackwell's real Party power is his ability to bridge the increasingly problematic fiscal-social divide in the conservative movement. He is a true believer in the restorative power of a Tax and Expenditure Limitation (TEL); a perfect "tell" for those who hold fiscal conservatism dear and those who are bluffing. He excites the political passions of the anti-tax-and-spend crowd who are increasingly angry at their Republican-controlled state and federal governments. The whole of the Republican base will leap to the polls for a tried and trusted conservative (as they already did for Blackwell in his 56 to 44 percent primary win).

STRICKLAND, MAN WITH THE VIRGINIA PLAN

In marked contrast to Blackwell, Democratic frontrunner Ted Strickland is a moderate's moderate. Like Mark Warner and his successor Tim Kaine, who have twice in a row secured the governor's mansion for the Democrats in an otherwise Red Virginia, Strickland is the kind of Democrat that wins in Republican states. He's a relatively conservative Congressman from a rural District. He's a former minister who's pro-gun and, though pro-choice, is against partial-birth abortions. Many think Strickland is the perfect candidate for the times and the state.

More promising still for Strickland, Ohio Democrats taste Republican blood in the water and this has invigorated them for victory. Strickland is running against a staunchly conservative foe who is 100 percent anti-abortion and wants to control tax and spending increases through a Tax and Expenditure Limitation (TEL). The TEL threatens the public sector minions more than any other policy, for it clamps down on the spending increases that are their source of life and power. The unions and public sector will pull out the stops to mobilize their supporters and take Blackwell down in the press.

A CHOICE & AN ECHO

This scenario portends rough parity between the candidates in base mobilization. And Strickland, the moderate to Blackwell's "extreme" conservatism, is generally expected to win the independents. Although from this picture it seems a Strickland win is inevitable, the first glance is deceiving.

Blackwell will be portrayed as a crazy Christian conservative who will de-fund social services, but Ohio voters are not in a mood to be scared by social program cut-backs, restrained government spending, and tax-cuts. Following a 63 percent increase in spending between 1994 and 2002, and a 36 percent increase in the tax burden over the past 30 years, most Ohioans are ready for a message of fiscal restraint. 86 percent of the public prefer spending restraint over increased taxes. 64 percent of likely voters say tax increases hurt the struggling economy, and they overwhelmingly support Blackwell's supposedly deadly TEL 71 percent to 15 percent.[1] Blackwell's "vulnerabilities" with centrist voters are hardly deal-breakers, and may even be turned to significant advantage.

Many pundits still think Blackwell's true-believer brand of conservatism will be his downfall in a presidential swing state fully fed up with Republicans running the show. But Ohio voters are disgusted with Republican hypocrites, not conservative principles. Blackwell has made a career and many enemies by decrying the degenerate state of his own Party. His primary campaign was a prolonged attack on the same "culture of corruption" that Democrats in general and Strickland's campaign believe will be their route to easy victory. What on earth is Strickland to do when his attacks on Ohio Republicans are met with hearty agreement from his opponent, followed by credible conservative solutions? Both candidates will run as reformers who will clean up and invigorate Ohio--Blackwell will propose to do the same for the Republican Party as its leader.

In contrast to Blackwell, Strickland's supposed asset, his moderation, can easily become a major liability. The Democratic base is not just energized--it is angry and leftist. Suffering consistent electoral losses, the activist core is increasingly convinced that the Clintonian "third-way" to victory--become more conservative--is the precise cause of the Party's continuing defeat. They want to sharpen political differences, embrace liberalism, and run progressive candidates. The Democratic activist base that looks to MoveOn and Howard Dean want a choice, not an echo, and are willing to take a loss to get it.

Liberal columnist Richard Cohen recently predicted that "the anger festering on the Democratic left will be taken out on the Democratic middle," helping elect conservatives because the left is too angry to vote for the impure. Strickland--a former minister with an "A" rating from the NRA and wobbly on abortion rights--risks prompting a spiteful tantrum from the angry Ohio left and dampening turnout from his Democratic base. One direct-mail campaign to Democratic voters listing Strickland's record might be all it takes to devastate the current enthusiasm among Ohio liberals.

Turnout is generally low in mid-term elections, so a motivated base will be key to victory. The Republican primary turnout was solid this year, boding well for the general election despite the scandal-plagued and tax-raising state Party. Blackwell's position as Party Rogue ensures that the burden of the Ohio Republican label will be lightened considerably, and his social and fiscal conservative bona fides will produce a robust turnout of Republicans. Blackwell's base is secure and his supposed weaknesses are potential strengths. Strickland's base is vulnerable and his supposed strengths are potential weaknesses.

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[1] Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, "New Poll Shows Strong Bipartisan Support in Ohio for Proposed TABOR," http://www.buckeyeinstitute.org/article/567

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Adam B. Schaeffer is a Cincinnati native.

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