Ohio GOP Continues Downward Slide

As scandals continue to swirl around Ohio Republicans, chances are increasing that next year Democrats will capture the governorship, a Senate seat, and at least one seat in the U.S. House.

Republican Gov. Bob Taft pleaded no contest this week to four misdemeanor charges that he failed to disclose, as legally mandated, 52 gifts of golf outings, meals and hockey tickets.  Taft could have been sentenced to two years in jail, but a judge let him off with a $4,000 fine. 

Taft’s crimes, however, are sure to haunt the three Republicans seeking the nomination to succeed him in 2006 and may destroy the GOP’s chances of retaining its hold on all Ohio statewide offices as well as their majorities in both houses of the state legislature.  Democrats are also certain to focus fire on the GOP for the ongoing investigation of coin dealer Thomas Noe, a longtime Republican contributor into whose enterprises the state has invested millions of state employee pension funds.  Noe is the subject of a probe for allegedly stealing state funds. 

“All of the negative headlines about Taft and Noe are getting tied to Republicans in general,” says Brian Berry, former executive director of the Ohio Republican Party.  “Rest assured, state and national Democrats will go all-out to win state offices next year, not just to help Hillary Clinton or whoever the Democratic nominee is in ’08, but to control the redistricting process by 2011.”

In Ohio, congressional and state legislative districts are drawn by a panel composed of the governor, secretary of state, state auditor, and one legislator from each major party.

For the first time since 1996, Republican Rep. Bob Ney will face a stiff Democratic challenger in Ohio’s 18th District.  Last week, Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer made it clear he would campaign against corruption and the incumbent’s links to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.   Along with taking a trip to play golf in Scotland allegedly financed by Abramoff, Ney has admitted winning $34,000 playing two hands of cards at a casino during a 2003 trip to London.

Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, a once-strong conservative who has drifted left, is also vulnerable in 2006.  John Hritz, a former president of the AK Steel Co. in Middletown, Ohio, announced last week he was exploring a primary challenge to DeWine.  Hritz’s position on most issues is unknown, but he describes himself as a conservative, and has been critical of DeWine for making a deal to preserve judicial filibusters and for being “too liberal on guns.”