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Ohio Is Testing Ground For Parties' Plans To Keep or Capture House

By Erika Niedowski, CQ Staff Writer

(CQ, April 18) -- In 1994, when Republicans swept both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Ohio Democrats lost four of their House seats and one in the Senate. In 1996, when Democrats made modest gains nationwide, they won two of those House seats back.

Now, with the May 5 primary looming, the Buckeye State is shaping up as a template for 1998, a test case for whether Republicans, exploiting the benefits of incumbency, can institutionalize their House majority as they head into the 2000 presidential campaign, or whether Democrats, exploiting the financial backing of labor unions, can regain control.

The state will also be a proving ground for the Senate GOP, which is expected to pick up the open seat of retiring Democratic Sen. John Glenn and modestly increase its majority this fall.

In the southern 6th District, where the incumbent has lost in each of the last three elections, five Republicans are wrestling for the right to take on Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland and likely labor union financing in November.

Theirs is an ideological battle perhaps far too familiar to the Republican Party. A supporter of abortion rights, Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister is the establishment-chosen moderate. She has the backing of GOP Gov. George V. Voinovich, the leading contender for the Senate seat held by Glenn, and much of the Ohio delegation. She also had raised the most money by the start of the year.

But former Rep. Frank A. Cremeans, whom Strickland edged by 2 percentage points in 1996, and insurance salesman Mike Azinger are both tapping a constituency that has already helped decide GOP primaries in California and Illinois this year: grass-roots conservatives.

The Ohio Right to Life Committee recently endorsed Cremeans and is planning to do mailings or other grassroots work on his behalf, while the Cincinnati-based political action committee, Family First, has thrown its support behind Azinger, another opponent of abortion.

"[Hollister's] numbers take a nose dive when people find out she's pro-choice," contends Dave Azinger, Mike Azinger's campaign manager and brother.

Cremeans has the ability to pump a lot of his own money into the race at the last minute. But even if he does, there may still be a catch: With more than one grass-roots candidate running, the conservative voting bloc appears to be fracturing. Roseann Siderits, a local coordinator for the Christian Coalition who worked for Cremeans in the past two elections and as recently as January, is raising money for Azinger. She charged that the former congressman's campaign is in "chaos."

"I know he cannot beat Ted Strickland in the fall," said Siderits.

Cremeans also lost his consultant, former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, earlier this year because of disagreements over strategy. Cremeans is currently managing his own campaign.

"I'm expecting Hollister" to win, said one national GOP strategist. "I think she's got the money and the muscle."

Democrats, who have fewer seriously contested primaries across the board, are hopeful that the Republican in-fighting in the 6th and in districts throughout the country will help them win the dozen or so seats they need to recapture the House.

The race in which Democrats do have an intraparty battle of their own is for the seat of retiring Democratic Rep. Louis Stokes in the Cleveland-based 11th, a Democratic stronghold. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who has the endorsement of the local Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO, has been considered the front-runner for months. Jones' campaign said internal polls show the African-American prosecutor with a 25-point lead.

But Jones' two main opponents in the majority-black district, the Rev. Marvin McMickle and state Sen. Jeffrey Johnson, who are also black, enjoy their own bases of support and have impressed voters at a series of local debates. McMickle claims to have the backing of nearly 100 church leaders, a powerful constituency in the inner city, while Johnson already represents half the district.

With the candidates expressing few substantive differences on the issues, observers say the race may turn more on personality than politics, and, of course, on who gets out the vote. Based on their level of financial strength, all three are planning to hit the airwaves during the next two weeks to boost their base. McMickle says his ads will focus on "leadership and integrity," which may be a veiled slap at Jones and Johnson.

Jones recently refused to reopen the investigation of Sam Sheppard despite new evidence suggesting that someone else was responsible for the 1954 murder of Sheppard's wife, Marilyn. In the case that spawned a television series and movie, Sheppard was convicted for the murder, a crime for which he served a decade in prison before being acquitted at a second trial in 1966. He died in 1970.

Johnson was indicted March 4 on felony corruption charges. He has maintained his innocence against allegations that he accepted $17,000 in campaign contributions and personal loans in exchange for securing state licenses for grocers in his district.

So far the charges seem to have hampered his campaign only slightly, if at all.

In the rest of Ohio, Democrats are targeting two sophomore Republicans: Steve Chabot in the Cincinnati-based 1st District and Bob Ney in the eastern 18th. Chabot, who won with 54 percent of the vote in 1996, will likely face Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, a top Democratic recruit who is expected to benefit from hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of AFL-CIO ads. Ney seems headed for a rematch with former state Sen. Robert Burch, who won 46 percent of the vote two years ago and is running a better-organized campaign this time around.

Seats such as Chabot's figure prominently in the Democrats' game plan for winning the 218 seats they need for a majority. "That will be on our top list of races around the country," said Texas Rep. Martin Frost, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The heated House contests have largely overshadowed the Senate campaign to replace Glenn, in which Voinovich will almost surely square off against little-known Democrat Mary Boyle, a former Cuyahoga County commissioner and onetime state representative.

Voinovich is the heavy favorite. He had $2.3 million more in campaign cash at the start of the year than Boyle; he has a 30 percentage point lead in the polls; and his political base is Cleveland, a traditionally Democratic city, which is Boyle's base as well.

Voinovich also recently won the endorsement of the Ohio Education Association, a teachers' union.

Even so, the governor has found himself at the center of controversy over a court-ordered overhaul of the way the public school system is funded.

A number of other education groups, including local chapters of the Ohio Education Association, are backing Boyle.

Indeed, Voinovich could suffer a setback if a ballot initiative on his administration's plan to fund schools by raising the state sales tax by one cent is defeated May 5.

Voinovich has also had trouble on the ethics front. His former chief of staff, Paul Mifsud, received a six-month jail sentence for evidence tampering and forgery, and Voinovich's brother has been criticized for his role in a local corruption scandal. "He's got to be the only governor in the United States of America whose former chief of staff is now sitting in jail," said state Democratic Party Chairman David Leland.

The open Ohio Senate seat is probably the best chance Republicans have anywhere of gaining ground in November. They need to pick up five seats for a filibuster-proof majority.

If history is any guide, Ohio will likely mirror the political mood nationwide. Thus, it could be here that the questions of campaign 1998 are answered. Will incumbents survive and flourish in what many say is a year of the status quo? Is the power of labor unions, especially in an industrial stronghold such as Ohio, enough to make a difference?

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday April 18, 1998

Bayh Likely To Pick Up Senate Seat in Indiana; Fundraising Troubles GOP
Funds For Others -- Or Maybe Themselves
Ohio Is Testing Ground For Parties' Plans To Keep or Capture House
Democrats on the Hill Appear Underwhelmed by Probe, Await Starr Report to House
Members Go Out on a Limb Over National Forests


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