Is Ohio Turning Blue?

In the wake of a Democratic candidate’s narrow loss in the August 2 special election in Ohio’s most Republican U.S. House district, pundits have begun pondering whether the Buckeye State is turning blue.

The problem for Republicans seems to be the stench that has begun to envelop the administration of Ohio GOP Gov. Robert A. Taft.

Republicans have held the Ohio governorship for 16 years and in the last two presidential elections the state has been indispensable in providing an Electoral College majority to George W. Bush. If Democrats can take back the governorship in 2006, however, they would improve their chances of taking the state’s electoral votes in the 2008 presidential contest. In another tight red state-blue state race, that could give the White House to Hillary Clinton or whoever happens to be the Democratic nominee.

The chances of this calamity’s taking place have been enhanced by the investigation into coin dealer Thomas Noe, a Republican contributor, into whose enterprises the state, under two Republican governors, has invested millions of state employee pension funds. In May, the state froze Noe’s assets.

On July 22, the Toledo Blade reported: “Tom Noe stole millions of dollars from the state and used a ‘Ponzi’ scheme to fabricate profits within the state’s $50 million rare-coin investment, Ohio’s attorney general said yesterday.”

“There was an absolute theft of funds going on,” the paper quoted GOP Atty. Gen. Jim Petro as charging.

This week, Noe’s lawyers denied the charge in a court motion, saying that Petro’s court motion was “page after page of speculation, setting forth no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of defendant’s Thomas Noe, Inc., or Thomas Noe.”

After Noe received state funds as investments in his coin business in 1998, according to the Blade, he made $7,000 in contributions to then-Secretary of State Taft, who was running for governor. In total, Noe has given $22,190 to Taft. In 1998, he also gave $2,000 to then-Gov. George Voinovich (R.), who was running for the U.S. Senate that year. In addition, he has given $7,500 to Sen. Mike DeWine (R.-Ohio).

“I think it shows that Tom Noe has become radioactive very rapidly, and politicians want to disassociate themselves from him as rapidly as possible,” John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, told the Dispatch.

In late July, Brian Hicks, formerly Taft’s chief of staff and now a Columbus lobbyist, pleaded no contest to charges he did not report taking gifts, in effect, from Noe in the form of undercharged stays at Noe’s $1.3-million vacation home in Islamorada, Fla. According to the Blade, Hicks paid $300 to $500 to rent Noe’s condo, when he should have paid $1,500 to $2,800. Taft himself is now under investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission for failing to report up to 60 golf outings he received over several years.

The political fall-out from what is increasingly dubbed “the mess in Columbus” has already worked to the detriment of the Republicans. With Democrats sensing their best chance at capturing the governorship in two decades, their leading candidate, Rep. Ted Strickland, has raised a whopping $1 million since announcing for governor two months ago. Moreover, in the special election for Congress August 2,,Democrat Paul Hackett narrowly lost (52% to 48%) to Republican Jean Schmidt in the 2nd District (suburban Cincinnati), the most Republican of Ohio’s 18 House districts. In both debates and mailings, Hackett tied former state legislator Schmidt to Taft and corruption in Columbus.

‘Chicken Hawk’

In focusing on the special election, national media outlets such as ABC News and the Washington Post made much of the fact that the 43-year-old Hackett, a U.S. Marine reservist who had served a seven-month tour of duty in Iraq, was critical of President Bush’s handling of the Iraqi war and the current occupation. At different points, Hackett was even quoted as referring to Bush as a “chickenhawk” and “S.O.B.”

“He did that to draw attention to himself, but Iraq was by no means a big issue here—Taft and taxes were,” said Portsmouth lawyer Eddie Edwards, a Republican activist in the 2nd District. In contrast to his anti-Bush salvoes that were highlighted in the national media, Edwards noted, the Democratic hopeful actually seemed to embrace Bush and the U.S presence on the campaign trail. One Hackett TV spot featured footage of Bush himself, and said: “There is no higher calling than service in our armed forces”—leading Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett to denounce the spot as “a blatant attempt to dupe voters” into thinking Bush endorsed the Democrat. Asked by the Cincinnati Enquirer what his exit strategy for Iraq would be, Hackett echoed Republican Schmidt that the U.S. must “finish the job.”

“I opposed the war, but we’re there now and can’t just leave,” said Hackett. “I propose that we get serious about training the Iraqis and marry them to American units, so that they can defend their fledgling democracy.”

Hackett and the Democrats hit hard at Schmidt as a “rubber stamp for failed policies,” tying her to Taft and noting that she voted for his unpopular sales tax increase. In their final debate July 26, Hackett mentioned Taft’s name in the same sentence with Schmidt 12 times and used the term “rubber stamp” seven times. The Hackett campaign’s two district-wide mailings linked Schmidt to Taft and taxes. The Democrat may also have benefited from last-minute reports that Schmidt, as a state legislator, had lobbied Gov. Taft’s office on behalf of an Internet lottery company owned by one of her contributors, Roger Ach (in whose failing on-line gaming company the controversial Noe was an investor).

Hackett carried four counties that Bush had won handily last year, but Schmidt survived through a big win in her home county of Clermont and by carrying strongly Republican Hamilton County. Taft and “Coingate” nearly cost Republicans a safe House seat. Will they cost them enough to make Ohio “blue” in ’08?