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Keep an Eye on Ken Blackwell in Ohio

In my column on Monday I made a passing comment that the odds right now favor the Democrats winning the Governor's races in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but losing in Florida. This is basically the conventional wisdom on these three races and it is confirmed in all of the early polling, though I wouldn't give too much credence to spring polls.

However, if there is going to be a surprise here it is going to come with Ken Blackwell in Ohio. Blackwell is an optimistic, conviction conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan. A football standout at Xavier University and former mayor of Cincinnati; Blackwell was first elected statewide in 1994 as Treasurer and then elected statewide again in 1998 and 2002 to his current position as Secretary of State. Having won three times statewide over the last 12 years is a much-overlooked asset for Blackwell's candidacy.

But perhaps the biggest factor that most national pundits are misinterpreting is the impact of the state's enormous disgust with the Ohio Republican party and in particular Governor Taft. A reader writes:

Blackwell - a longtime thorn in Taft's side - used his outsider status in the recent GOP primary where Republicans came out in force to vote despite being called demoralized by the drive-by media. He is a charismatic and skilled politician; do not be surprised if is able to wage a campaign that paints Strickland as the logical heir to Taftian politics (higher taxes, squishy social views, and the charisma of a fish) and himself as the true reformer.

I have thought for sometime this will be the Blackwell strategy and I think he is well positioned to make a credible case to the voters of Ohio that he is more of an agent of change than the Democrat nominee, congressman Ted Strickland. And the change component here is key. Michael Barone writes; "From the 1840s to the 1990s, no party held the governorship for more than eight years. Today the Republicans are in their 16th year of controlling the governorship and the legislature. Ohio is overdue to go Democratic." That is the single biggest obstacle to Republicans retaining the governorship and the only way Blackwell will be able to overcome this factor is if he can make himself the candidate for change. As a strong fiscal and social conservative, something both the current GOP Governor and the Democratic nominee are not, Blackwell has an opportunity to present himself to the voters as the candidate of change in the race.

My Ohio friend goes on to write:

The way pundits so casually dismiss Ohio as going to the Dems is uninformed. You can quote every poll there is between Strickland and Blackwell. I would caution you to look at every published poll leading up to 2005's Reform Ohio Now ballot initiatives. They showed those issues all passing by margins of between 5 and 20 points. After the state GOP's grassroots network of volunteers got done walking neighborhoods, making phone calls and driving folks to the polls, not one of the issues broke 40% affirmation. Never underestimate the network we on-the-ground folks have built up here over the last 5 years. It delivered the state for Bush in 2004. It defeated the RON initiatives in 2005. It is already formidable enough to have the New York Times - of all lefty cheerleaders - pretty much conceding DeWine will win this year (see last Sunday's edition) - and it will carry Ken Blackwell to victory.

These are all valid points and coupled with Barone's analysis of the raw voting numbers (not polls here, but actual votes) where he admits that the numbers from Ohio were not as bad for Republicans as he expected.

Turnout on both sides was robust, as it was in November 2004, when Ohio cast 5,627,908 votes, 687,491 more than its previous high (in 1992). People may be turned off by politics and politicians, but they're still voting like crazy--or at least in greater numbers than in the recent past. And people may be turned off by Republicans, but a lot of Republicans are still voting. This parallels what I saw in the special election last month in the 50th Congressional District of California. Somehow, despite all the discouraging news and dismal poll numbers, there are a lot of plodding, dull, dutiful people, too stubborn to take instruction from their betters in the mainstream media, who insist on going out and voting Republican. Hard to explain. But that's what the numbers seem to say.

And so at the end of the day, if you are looking for a surprise in the Big Three (FL, OH, PA) governor's races it is likely to come with Ken Blackwell in Ohio. Rendell, who is an underappreciated political force and a potential VP candidate in his own right (if the Dems are smart) is very unlikely to lose in Pennsylvania, not withstanding all of the buzz the star candidacy of Lynn Swann might generate. Florida looks like a boring race where the GOP will hold the state house. But the Ohio Governor's race will be one to certainly watch, because if Ken Blackwell can pull out a come from behind victory he will immediately be a serious VP candidate who would take Ohio out of play for Democrats, severely complicating their ability to get to 270 Electoral Votes and win the Presidency.