Does Bush Still Burden Ohio Repubs?

Can George W. Bush still affect the outcomes of elections in 2010?  Democrats clearly think so in the battle for an open Senate seat in Ohio.

Rob Portman, former congressman and cabinet official under George W. Bush, is the Republican frontrunner in the race to replace retiring Sen. George Voinovich.  The GOP has rallied around Portman as an experienced candidate who can raise the money necessary to win. So far he has proven them right, raising over $3.4 million — more than both the Democratic candidates combined.

But the Bush connection attacks started immediately.  The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has already released two web ads attacking Portman while Ohio Democrats launched a parody website — branding him as the “architect of the Bush economy” — to go with their endless stream of Portman equals Bush press releases.  Democrats are hoping that the current economic woes can still be laid at the foot of George W. Bush and the former president’s unpopularity undercuts Portman.

Portman, who spoke to HUMAN EVENTS last week, feels the election will be a referendum on the economy and what Democrats — from the White House and Congress to the Ohio Governor — have done with their time in leadership.

When asked about whether attacks linking him to Bush would work, he noted voters he talks with are focused on the future.

“I find people are more interested in what you are going to do to get them out of the problems they are in than to point fingers; particularly when the Democrats are running the House, the Senate, the White House, and the Governorship.  It is kind of hard to blame someone else.”

He is finding that people are concerned about their jobs but also about Washington; that “Washington seems out of touch with what is going on in Ohio.”  Pocketbook issues like health care, energy, and taxes dominate.

“People are worried about keeping the health care they have, about a bureaucracy between them and their doctor.  But it is also about centralized power – people are concerned that this health care reform proposal isn’t saving money it is costing more money.”

In tough economic times, the focus is on jobs.

“Ohio is right in the bull’s-eye for the kind of cap and trade policy passed by the House because we use a lot of coal — 90% of us get our electricity from coal — and we have a lot of manufacturing which is disproportionately impacted.  So again, people are asking how this is going to help — that this is only going to make it harder to keep jobs.”

He has found Tea Parties — Portman attend one in Cincinnati Saturday with reported attendance of 18,000 — to be genuine grassroots uprisings that cut across party lines.  And these concerned voters know that runaway spending means one thing: higher taxes.

“Everyone knows that you can’t have this dramatic expansion of spending without paying the piper and so they know tax increases are coming.  And the administration hasn’t been shy about it either.  This is taxes on small businesses.  People who are trying to keep their small businesses going slapped with an 8% payroll tax if they don’t have the health care the administration thinks is appropriate.”

Portman understands the swing state nature of Ohio, but he believes that a majority of Ohioans subscribe to “common sense conservatism.”  They instinctively know “[i]t doesn’t make sense to spend money you don’t have on things you don’t need” and recognize that “the stimulus wasn’t about growing jobs it was about growing government.”

He is willing, however, to admit the GOP played a role in failures of the last few cycles.

"I think Republican office holders let the public down.  Voters sent a message to Republicans in 2006 and 2008.  GOP officeholders weren’t protecting the taxpayers and had lost their way on fiscal conservatism while getting caught up in scandals and questionable ethics.”

Portman believes, however, that Republicans today are enthused and energized, and he is seeing record crowds across the state.  He has watched the mood evolve having given dozens of Lincoln Day speeches last year and hundreds of talks already this year.

“I think there is a resurgence going on and it has to do with the party getting back to its roots as a fiscal conservative party and making sure candidates are put forward that don’t have the ethical problems that some Republicans had in 2006.

"And honestly, Democrats are helping us get our voice back.  They are showing Ohio voters quite clearly what the distinctions are between our two parties on issues like spending, health care, energy, and taxes.  And Republicans are energized right now.”

Portman believes that his message will resonate with voters:

“They are looking for candidates who seem to be well grounded and who know that a centralized economy — centralized power in Washington — is not the American way and is not the Ohio way. They are looking for policies and values that are consistent with what makes America great.”

For his part, Portman concentrates on policies aimed at boosting small businesses — what he believes are the engine of growth. This means less spending and government control not more.  It means a tax system that incentivizes innovation and growth instead of punishing it.  It means an “all of the above energy policy” not a massive energy tax.  It means a health care system that gives families more control of their health care choices not less.

These are classic GOP issues, but Portman believes this common sense conservatism can appeal to Republicans and Independents a like (and even some Democrats). Time will tell.

Over a year out from 2010 the battle lines are being drawn.  Voter’s perception of who “owns” the economy — Bush vs. Obama and/or the Democratic Majority — will go a long way to determining who wins this important Senate seat.


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