With Ohio match-up set, Dems go for another strong challenge in red district

State Rep. Bob Latta survived a hard-fought and controversial Republican special primary when he was declared the winner Wednesday morning in Ohio’s 5th district, but the muddy trail he leaves behind has Democrats hopeful they can set another precedent in their second Ohio special election in two years.

Two years ago, Iraq veteran Paul Hackett’s unexpectedly stiff challenge to the Republican rule in the strongly conservative 2nd district preceded big Democratic gains statewide. Only one House district flipped in 2006, however, and Democrats are back for more in 2008, going after as many as six GOP-held seats.

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Moving the 5th district into the competitive column would be a coup for Democrats, especially given the area’s GOP tilt and the late Rep. Paul Gillmor’s (R) dominance. But observers say much will depend on whether the national party wants to invest in an under-funded candidate.

Gillmor, who died two months ago, hadn’t won with less than 60 percent in any of his previous nine terms before winning a 10th term 57-43 last year. His opponent in that race, Robin Weirauch (D), easily won the Democratic nomination Tuesday and will face Latta.

Weirauch took 72 percent of the vote against nominal competition, while Latta edged state Sen. Steve Buehrer 44-40. They will meet head to head Dec. 11.

The Latta-Buehrer match-up was marked by controversy almost from the outset, with the Ohio Elections Commission playing arbiter in a series of disputes over campaign tactics.

On Monday, the day before the election, the commission publicly reprimanded Latta for making false statements on campaign literature about Buehrer’s positions. Latta’s campaign had said Buehrer was opposed to school prayer and posting the Ten Commandments — a package of claims that even Latta’s attorney admitted were “misleading,” “a cheap shot” and “a low blow,” according to the Toledo Blade.

Buehrer, who had the backing of the anti-tax group Club for Growth, also drew criticism from the commission. The panel said both he and the Club made false statements about Latta’s record on taxes, but it did not impose penalties against any of the three.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer said the dust-ups could open the door for Weirauch.

“Bob Latta fought in one of the nastiest and most divisive primaries in recent memory in Northwest Ohio, and he’s coming out of it wounded,” Rudominer said, adding: “Ohioans deserve a fresh alternative that will bring change to Washington.”

Latta said the shortened campaign and the involvement of the Club for Growth made the GOP primary much more negative than the area was used to, and he said he expects the next race to be cleaner.

He added that he was trading phone calls with Buehrer and is “sure” he will have the senator’s support in the general election.

“That campaign ended last night; it’s a new day, everything’s done, and we move on from there,” Latta told The Hill on Wednesday morning.

Without the Club for Growth, he added, “it’s a completely different scenario that we’re in, and I’m looking forward to it very, very much.”

Meanwhile, Club for Growth President Pat Toomey struck a conciliatory note.

“We look forward to working with [Latta] to achieve pro-growth, economic conservative policies when he gets to Washington,” Toomey said in a statement.

The big question for Democrats is whether Weirauch and her party can take advantage of any openings and provide a viable alternative to Latta.

Her name recognition will benefit from two previous bids against Gillmor in 2004 and 2006, but the money question will linger.

She has not been able to raise large amounts of cash for her two previous runs at the seat — less than $200,000 combined — and raised only $40,000 in a report filed before the special primary. Latta raised $240,000.

National Democrats are waiting for things to play out a little further before deciding whether to make a heavy investment.

David Wasserman, a House race analyst for the Cook Political Report, said he would be surprised to see national Democrats spend money on the race because of the proximity of the candidates’ bases.

“Their main dilemma is that Latta and Weirauch share a home base in Wood County — Bowling Green — and Latta’s strong support there will negate the large margin Weirauch would need from the county to win district-wide,” Wasserman said.

Rob Alexander, a political science professor at Ohio Northern University, said Democrats in the area are fired up, but he called Weirauch’s funding disadvantage a “huge” problem.

“I take my cues from the party leadership, and if the party’s not willing to support her, then that doesn’t spell very good,” Alexander said.

Weirauch spokesman Brad Bauman said the campaign has received lots of interest from Democratic members of the state’s delegation and said the fact that it will be the “only show in town” next month will help it raise the money it needs.

Bauman said he expects the GOP primary battle to remain relevant as well, helping Weirauch’s cause. Weirauch proposed on Wednesday that both candidates sign a clean-campaign pledge.

“Let’s face it, the animosity that was fostered between them isn’t going to go away overnight,” Bauman said.

Republicans say the large GOP base provides a solid foundation for keeping the seat red. Turnout for the GOP primary was about double the Democratic primary, although it did host a much more competitive race.

At the same time, the GOP tempered its optimism. National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has cast this cycle as an extremely volatile one, not necessarily favoring either party.

Last month, a GOP candidate in Massachusetts ran a surprisingly tough special election race against now-Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) in a blue district.

NRCC spokeswoman Betsy Andres said: “The high Republican turnout in last night’s election clearly speaks to the Republican tilt of the district, but if the Massachusetts special election taught us anything, it’s that both Democrats and Republicans should be prepared in this environment.”

The race for Gillmor’s seat is one of four open-seat races in the state this cycle. The retirements of Republican Reps. David Hobson, Deborah Pryce and Ralph Regula have provided one or two additional pickup opportunities — Pryce was already a target — and two more close races against Republicans are expected. One is against Rep. Steve Chabot, and the other is against Rep. Jean Schmidt, if she wins what could be a tough GOP primary.

Meanwhile, Republicans will attempt to regain freshman Rep. Zack Space’s (D) seat.