Blackwell Makes History in Ohio

In winning the Republican primary for governor of Ohio last week, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell made history as only the second African-American since Reconstruction to capture a Republican gubernatorial nomination. Now, if he can defeat his Democratic opponent, six-term Rep. Ted Strickland, the conservative Blackwell will instantly become a major player on the national political scene.

With the 2006 election cycle looking increasingly bleak for the GOP, the prospect of a pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, anti-tax conservative’s winning the governorship of what may be the most important swing state in presidential elections has knowledgeable Republicans nationwide already cheering. As governor, Blackwell could play a key role in keeping Ohio’s 20 Electoral College votes in the Republican column in ’08.

Like Ronald Reagan, who was elected governor of California in 1966, and Jeb Bush, who became governor of Florida in 1998, the 58-year-old Blackwell meshes conservative stands on cultural and economic issues with personal “star quality.” Drafted as a linebacker out of Ohio’s Xavier University by the Dallas Cowboys (he did not stick with the team), Blackwell benefited this year from campaign appearances on his behalf by Jack Kemp, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and Steve Forbes, for whose 1996 presidential campaign Blackwell served as national co-chairman.

Sea Change

Ohio has a recent history of electing Republican governors who are either moderate in the mold of lame-duck incumbent Robert Taft or moderately conservative in the mold of the late James Rhodes or Sen. George Voinovich. Thus Blackwell’s victory with 56% of the primary vote represents something of a sea change in the Ohio Republican tradition. He not only opposes abortion in all circumstances except to save the life of the mother, he also led the successful 2004 campaign to enact a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman. The measure won 62% to 38%, the “yes” side drawing 500,000 more votes than President Bush did. Blackwell told Human Events last year, “The churches put that issue over, and in the process, put the President over the top and doubled his share of black voters.”

This year, Blackwell is campaigning to limit state taxing and spending. He helped craft a proposed constitutional amendment called the Tax and Expenditure Limitation (TEL), with which he will now share the November ballot. It would limit annual increases in state spending to whichever is greater, either 3.5% or the rate of inflation plus population growth. The limit could be exceeded only if the legislature approved a bill allocating money by item, amount and source with voter approval in the next election. It also would require voter approval for any local tax increase.

In addition, Blackwell has called for privatizing the Ohio Turnpike, which he claims would yield up to $6 billion in fresh revenue.

Nonetheless, the fall race appears an uphill battle for Blackwell and other Ohio Republicans, including Sen. Mike DeWine. (Read my blog on Ohio politics here.) This is in large part due to the unpopularity of Gov. Taft, who pleaded no contest to ethics violations. More significantly, Taft is linked in the public mind to the probe of Republican coin dealer Tom Noe, who is charged with mishandling millions of dollars from the state workers’ compensation fund. More than 59% of Ohio voters want a Democratic comeback in Columbus after 15 years of Republican statehouse rule, according to a survey by the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. The latest Rasmussen poll has Democrat Strickland leading Blackwell, 52% to 36%.

But Blackwell is the leading Ohio Republican least tied to Taft and the state party establishment, so conservatives nationwide will be hoping he can defy the odds.