Democrats call Driehaus the answer to dry spell against Rep. Steve Chabot

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) was starting to appear increasingly comfortable in his seat in 2004, when he completed his second straight reelection bid with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Then came 2006, and now comes state Rep. Steve Driehaus.

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National Democrats are selling Driehaus as the answer to their long quest to knock out Chabot and make a dent in a state on which they placed heavy emphasis in 2006.

When all was said and done, despite taking 30 House seats nationwide from Republicans, Democrats had taken over just one House district out of about four serious takeover tries in the state.

The Chabot seat is at the top of their list of near-misses, and Democrats are extremely high on Driehaus as a Democrat whom they say can appeal to the western portion of the district, which is more Republican and has thus been Chabot’s base of support.

Driehaus was contacted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) last cycle but turned down a bid. He is now term-limited in the state House and hoping to finish what 2006 Democratic nominee John Cranley started in a suburban district that Democrats say is swinging their way because of urban sprawl.

“This district is becoming less safe for the incumbent every year,” Driehaus said. “It’s just a matter of time, and I think that time is shortly approaching.”

Cranley and Chabot were neck-and-neck throughout the closing months of the campaign, but Chabot held on for a 52-48 win.

Much like Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), Chabot has demonstrated an ability to survive close elections. First elected in 1994 with 56 percent of the vote, he has since won reelection with less than 55 percent of the vote four times.

“I’ve won 10 elections in a row in the last 20 years or so, and I’ve been targeted by virtually all of these left-wing groups for years now,” Chabot said. “I think the people in my district are smart enough to judge people based on merit and their records.”

In fact, Democrats largely abandoned the district in the 2002 and 2004 races, when Democrat Greg Harris ran a pair of under-funded campaigns and lost by 30 and 20 points, respectively.

But Democrats reemphasized the seat in 2006 and invested heavily in Cranley.

Now they make the case that the district continues to shift in their favor and will make things even harder for Chabot in 2008.

Chabot’s district is a classic example of a suburban district shifting in the Democrats’ favor, according to Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech University.

In a recent report, Hamilton County, Ohio, is classified by Lang and his team as an “inner suburb” county, a type that is growing Democratic the fastest of any other part of the country’s metropolitan areas.

“The 1st district contains a lot of the maturing suburbs west of Cincinnati,” Lang said. “The process is, as you build these places denser and they get more city-like, they vote more like cities.”

Democrats and Driehaus also say he appeals to those suburbs because he’s represented them, though the majority of his district lies inside the Cincinnati city limits.

The DCCC notes that Driehaus has won convincingly in what it considers a Republican state House district — a classification it justifies by pointing out that Republicans have won most of the major races in the district in recent years.

Republicans dispute that picture of Driehaus’s district.

They point out that, according to Hamilton County, which contains the entire state House district, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) beat President Bush there by about 10 points in 2004. The district often has mirrored the rest of the state and the congressional district — which are both considered swing — in other elections.

Driehaus has won the district overwhelmingly in recent years, most recently by almost 40 points.

“If the DCCC is going to recruit a candidate you would think they would take the time to know the district,” Chabot Chief of Staff Gary Lindgren said. “On the other hand, they’ve consistently misread the district and targeted Congressman Chabot without success.”

DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said: “Obviously, Chabot is losing sleep over Steve Driehaus’s candidacy, and he has reason to.”

Republicans downplay Driehaus’s crossover appeal and note that Chabot won in a district that was more Democratic in the late 1990s. In 2004, after redistricting, Bush won the district by two points.

Chabot told the Cleveland Plain Dealer before last year’s election that the district gradually changes after redistricting until it “is almost unwinnable by the 10th year.”

Coming up on the eighth year of this decade, he told The Hill last week that while “it changes slightly” over time, his comment about the district was referring mostly to last decade.

Driehaus also provides something different as a state legislator. The seat has for decades been held by former members of the Cincinnati City Council — several of whom were also mayors.

Driehaus said serving on the city council can be a mixed bag, because it can provide higher name recognition but might be ill-perceived in the suburbs.

Chabot detailed the long history of council members-turned-Congress members and said any idea that that’s changed is bogus.

“In my mind, it’s just not accurate at all, if one even takes a cursory look at the history of the district,” Chabot said.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley said Chabot has proven a strong candidate who delivers for his district.

“Chabot won in what was ground zero for the worst election cycle for Republicans in decades,” Shutley said. “We have every confidence he will be successful in 2008.