President Obama’s Saturday rally in Ohio brings him to one of the hottest swing states in the country, where competitive races up and down the ballot could change the balance of power in Washington come November.
The symbolism of taking the fight to the home state of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is not lost on Obama, who’s brought his political battles to Ohio before. When Obama wanted to make the case for infrastructure spending and his jobs bill in September, he chose a bridge just outside of Boehner’s southwestern Ohio district to give his speech.
Ohio will be a major battleground in the general election: it hasn’t voted for the losing candidate in a presidential election since 1960 — Obama carried it with 51 percent in 2008 — and Republicans made large gains there in the 1990s, and have held every statewide office for much of the first decade of the millennium.
But recent years have seen Democrats regain their footing, with many of the Reagan Democrats who turned away from the party beginning to come home. And a public spat between the Republican governor and the state GOP chairman that led to the latter’s ouster in April has left the state party in disarray.
Obama and Mitt Romney are locked in a statistical tie in Ohio, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday. That’s a significant comeback for the presumptive GOP nominee, who was six points behind Obama when the group polled Ohio in March.
There are few better examples than Ohio of how national economic trends have had a tangible effect on everyday Americans — and of the contrast between the two parties on how to move forward.
Heavily dependent on manufacturing and automobiles — Democrats claim that one in eight jobs in Ohio depend on the auto industry — Ohio suffered some of the worst effects of the economic recession. Now that things are starting to pick up, both parties are eager to claim credit.
“We don’t have to criticize Mitt Romney. I just hand out copies of the Detroit Free Press editorial he wrote where he suggested Detroit go bankrupt,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern told The Hill. “That is not a talking point that will resonate in places like Toledo and Columbus.”
Unemployment in Ohio hit 10.6 percent in August 2009 and stayed there for the rest of the year. Since the start of 2010, the rate has been slowly declining, and has fallen to 7.5 percent — almost a full percentage point lower than the national average.
But Republicans claim Obama carried Ohio in 2008 thanks to the immensity of what he promised the state, and argue that Ohio voters won’t be fooled twice. They point to the defeat of former Gov. Ted Strickland (D) in 2010 by Gov. John Kasich (R), and the five House Democrats they tossed out of office the same year.
“The president is going to discover he really has a nightmare opponent in Ohio: himself in 2008,” said Bob Bennett, who took over the Ohio Republican Party in April. “Everything Obama promised to do and be for in Ohio, he’s really discarded.”
Bennett said the party is opening up four “victory centers” in the state starting next week, and that while turmoil within the party has been a challenge, Republicans are quickly getting their organization back on track.
The Republican National Committee also named Mike Bir its victory director in Ohio on Wednesday, and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has been bracketing Obama’s upcoming visit by accusing him of waging a “hype and blame” campaign on the taxpayer’s dime rather than solving the ongoing problems affecting Americans in Ohio and elsewhere.
When Obama and the first lady appear at Ohio State University on Saturday in Columbus, it will be the first official rally of his 2012 campaign.
“He's going to start out with one fundamental question: Are we going to move forward building an economy built to last, or are we going to let the economy go backwards and give fewer people a fair shot?” asked a Democratic official.
The visit also takes him into the home turf of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose name continues to pop up as a likely vice presidential pick for Romney.
At Obama’s side on Saturday will be Ohio’s other senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown. Republicans have argued that Brown is avoiding being seen with the president for fear it could hurt his own reelection chances, but a Brown aide said the senator will not only attend but also speak at the rally.
Republicans are bullish about the prospects of unseating Brown, a first-term senator with one of the more liberal voting records in the Senate. Conservative outside groups — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads — have already spent millions of dollars attacking Brown, with plans to spend millions more.
Polls show Brown with a lead of about 10 points over Republican Josh Mandel, Ohio’s first-term state treasurer, whose campaign has struggled to respond to a litany of questions raised about his conduct in that office. But Mandel, a Marine Corps veteran, has the Tea Party fully behind him, and has also secured the support of fiscally conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund.
Further down the ballot in Ohio are a series of competitive House races.
The marquee House race in the state pits two incumbents — one a Democrat, one a Republican — against each other. Republicans controlled the pen as Ohio redrew its congressional map in 2011 — with a heavy dose of input from Boehner — and Rep. Betty Sutton’s (D-Ohio) district was dismantled, leading her to pick a general-election fight against Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio).
Sutton’s district was one of two that were eliminated as a result of slow population growth in Ohio. In the other, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) was forced into a primary against Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who defeated him in March. Kaptur is the favorite to win her general election against Republican Samuel Joe Wurzelbacher, better known to most Americans as “Joe the Plumber.”
Democrats point out that for all the supposed gains to GOP prospects from redistricting, Republicans have already lost two of their own. Rep. Steve Austria (R-Ohio) opted against running for reelection after his district was sliced up, and Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) was ousted in a GOP primary by a physician with no elective experience.
High up on Democrats’ target list for 2012 is freshman Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who polls show could be vulnerable and who has already been attacked by House Majority PAC, a Democratic super-PAC. Former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio), who Johnson defeated in 2010, is running to reclaim his seat.