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OH Sen: Brunner Facing Pressure With Redistricting Looming

The retirement of Sen. George Voinovich presented Democrats with another opportunity to build on their recent winning streak in the Buckeye State. The party took all but one of the statewide offices in 2006, including a landslide win by Gov. Ted Strickland. In 2008, Democrats not only turned the state blue in the presidential race, but took control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in 14 years.

But now a looming Democratic primary contest spells trouble for the party. Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner both have set their sights on the Voinovich seat and Democrats worry that a bitter and costly primary fight might not only weaken the party's chances of winning the seat next year (shoring up their dominance in the U.S. Senate). It could also weaken Democratic chances of controlling the Ohio redistricting process that begins after 2010.

That's why some Democrats say Brunner should give up the race and seek re-election to her current job. In her current job as secretary of state, Brunner happens to be one of five members of the Ohio Apportionment Board that oversees the redrawing of state legislative and congressional district lines.

Also on the board are the governor, state auditor, and two representatives from the state legislature, including one of the minority party. Gov. Strickland is a slight favorite to win re-election next year. State Auditor Mary Taylor, a Republican, announced this week that she would seek re-election too. If both were to win, that would make the secretary of state the swing seat in the apportionment process. Republicans held majorities in the reapportionment panel in 1991 and 2001.

It hasn't helped Brunner's case that Fisher, buoyed by support from Gov. Strickland, has gotten off to a fast fundraising start. She reported raising just $207,000 in the first quarter, compared to $1 million raised by her Democratic rival. Brunner attributes the early disparity to Fisher's longer career in state politics, having served as attorney general from 1991-95, and his failed 1998 gubernatorial bid. But Brunner herself is hardly an unknown: She succeeded the controversial Ken Blackwell in a job that has assumed a high profile because of Ohio's need to fix election systems strained by large turnouts and close finishes in the key presidential battleground state.

So far Brunner isn't buckling. She wrote to party leaders this week insisting she was in the Senate race for good. "I want to make it clear that under no circumstances will I consider seeking re-election to the Secretary of State's position, or any other statewide or federal office, other than the open U.S. Senate seat of retiring Senator George Voinovich," she said in an email to key Democrats last week, as reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Meanwhile, former Rep. and Bush OMB director Rob Portman appears to have a clear field in winning the GOP Senate nomination. Though early polls show him being beaten by either Brunner or Fisher, he is personally popular and dissatisfaction with Democratic dominance in Washington could be a bigger factor by late 2010.