By Peter Savodnik - 01/18/06 12:00 AM EST
Democrats are salivating about the prospects of unseating Rep. Bob Ney in November, but they face a surprising number of obstacles in ousting a member who could be indicted in the coming months.
Ney, the embattled Ohio Republican who stepped down Monday as chairman of the House Administration Committee amid corruption charges, remains popular at home and primed for reelection, local Republicans say.
The sixth-term congressman has $600,000 in his campaign coffers, the support of numerous county GOP chairmen and conservative activists, and a positive image among voters, according to a poll being touted by state party leaders.
State GOP Chairman Bob Bennett would not identify the group that conducted the poll — the results have yet to be made public — but maintained that they reflect deep support for the congressman, state Republican spokesman John McClelland said.
What’s more, Democrats in the solidly Republican 18th District appear disunited and unprepared for a tough campaign against an entrenched, well-funded incumbent.
While Democrats in Washington are talking up Chillicothe Mayor Joseph Sulzer, he faces a primary with newcomer Zach Space.
A Democratic official in Washington said Sulzer would report ending the fourth quarter of the year with as much as $240,000 in the bank.
But local Democratic officials say the primary has hardly been decided. Ruby Gilliam, the chairwoman of the Carroll County Democratic Party, said there would be no consensus candidate to rally around until the primary May 2. The Democratic official added that Space, who only entered the race in early December, has as much as $75,000 on hand.
There are indications that Sulzer may not be ready to defeat a seasoned lawmaker. In a Nov. 7 interview with The Hill, Sulzer repeatedly mispronounced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s name, calling him, “Abaramoff.”
In Abramoff’s recent plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Ney is referred to as the “Representative #1” singled out in a Justice Department inquiry. Ney has denied any wrongdoing.
Sulzer, who has served in the Ohio Legislature and is a Vietnam veteran, only has a temporary campaign website which does not yet accept electronic contributions.
Still, Republicans privately acknowledge that Ney, should he be indicted for his ties to Abramoff, could face an extremely difficult race. That has triggered speculation Ney would resign if he is indicted. And they say that state Sen. Jay Hottinger, former state Rep. Joy Padgett and other Republicans are routinely mentioned as possible replacements for Ney.
Ney spokesman Brian Walsh declined to discuss the possibility of a Ney retirement.
“I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals,” Walsh said. “The congressman absolutely intends to seek reelection, but I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals. The congressman is absolutely convinced that he’s done nothing wrong.”
In recent months, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Phil English (R-Pa.) have hosted fundraisers for Ney, Walsh said.
He added that, given that the district is the largest in Ohio and encompasses five media regions, including portions of the Cleveland and Cincinnati markets, beating an incumbent will be particularly expensive.
Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, noted that the filing deadline in Ohio is two months away and that, “at this point, Ney says he plans to run for reelection.” Forti added: “Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty.”
Bill Kepko, the chairman of the Republican Party of Knox County, in the northeastern corner of the district, said that Ney is scheduled to address the county party March 17 at its Lincoln Day Dinner.
“What we see come out of Washington is allegations,” Kepko said. “Anybody can make the allegations.” He added: “I understand that the Ohio Republican Party has some contingency candidates, but I’ve not heard anything about that.”
McClelland said he was unaware of any backup candidates.
The Ney imbroglio comes at a particularly inopportune time for Republicans. Not only have scandals shaken Capitol Hill and the White House; the state GOP and, especially, Gov. Bob Taft (R) have hit all-time lows in voter surveys.
Ohio is a hotbed of partisan politics this year, with a gubernatorial race and Sen. Mike DeWine (R) facing a potentially tough challenge from either Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett or Rep. Sherrod Brown, both Democrats.
Now, the 18th District looks as if it could be in for a spirited race.
“Anyone can see that both Democratic candidates in Ohio-18 are running strong and professional campaigns,” said Adrienne Elrod, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “However, the Republicans should be more concerned about protecting one of their members who is not only in the fight of his political life but in the fight for his personal freedom.”
President Bush won 57 percent of the vote in Ney’s district in 2004.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report on Friday deemed the Ney race a tossup after last month labeling it “lean Republican.” Likewise, the seat of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has been moved to the tossup column.
Alexander Bolton contributed to this article.