BATAVIA, Ohio—Ohio is a microcosm of what's ailing the Republican Party.
If the state swings Democratic on Nov. 7, it could tip the balance of power in Washington, where Democrats would win control of the Senate if they gain six seats and take over the House of Representatives if they pick up 15 seats.
Ohio voters helped President Bush win in 2000 and 2004, but many say that life seems bleaker now, or that they feel betrayed by the party in power. This fall, Ohio is very much in play.
From Democratic Cleveland in the northeast to Republican Cincinnati in the southwest, Ohio communities are pained by the loss of their sons in Iraq.
Columbus, the capital, is in the center, divided politically and almost alone in doing well economically. The rest of the state is racked by economic pain as Detroit's "Big Three" automakers retrench and manufacturing jobs evaporate—another 34,000 in the past year, according to the Ohio Manufacturers Directory.
Corruption scandals are taking a toll on Republicans here, too. Voters say that Republicans at both the state and federal levels were too caught up in their own messes to serve their constituents.
"Given what's happened here, I'll probably go Democrat," said Darrell Fowler, 48. Previously he voted for Bush and Republicans. He works at the soon-to-be-closed Ford transmission plant in Batavia, east of Cincinnati.
Among the plant's remaining 1,400 employees is Fowler's fiancee, Melissa Blankenship, 39, a Democrat who said she's very motivated to vote this year. The couple, both of whom have children, said they could be out of work by year's end.
In Cleveland, Paul Schroeder put his consulting business on hold to become a national activist for a troop withdrawal from Iraq after his 23-year-old son Augie was killed there in August 2005. Augie was one of 20 Marines from the same local battalion to die in a three-day span.
"I had been an independent. If there was a good Republican, I'd vote for a Republican," Schroeder said. "This year, my calculus is, who's got blood on their hands? This year, the entire Republican Party has blood on their hands."
Bob Derga, an engineering manager near Canton, whose 24-year-old son Dustin, also a Marine, was killed in Iraq last year, still supports the Republican Party and the war. He says that a Democratic takeover of Congress could make America more vulnerable to terrorism and make his son's death in vain.
And regardless of who's in power, he says, manufacturing probably will never bounce back. But Derga doesn't think his stance will prevail.
"The Democratic slate is going to win handily," Derga predicted. "There's such a strong sentiment that's anti-war, anti-Bush ... it's the herd mentality."
Less than three weeks from midterm elections, independent polls project that Democrats will win the open governor's race in Ohio, a seat Republicans have held for 16 years, and will topple incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine.
While Republicans expect to win some statewide offices, they worry that Democrats could gain between three and five U.S. House seats. Republicans now hold 12 of Ohio's 18 House seats.
"There are several things going on in Ohio that transcend individual candidates," said Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck. One of them is corruption.
Outgoing Gov. Bob Taft last year pleaded no contest to ethics charges. Rep. Bob Ney, who dropped his re-election bid, this month pleaded guilty in a bribery case involving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
A high-profile trial is now under way in Ohio for Tom Noe, a GOP fundraiser who's accused of illegally donating to Bush and stealing taxpayer money in a bungled rare-coin investment.
"Many voters are beginning to think there's a price to be paid for near-monopoly control," Beck said. "It's a blanket that's going to affect all of them. We still have three weeks, but right now the Democrats clearly have a decided edge."
These factors, combined with shifting demographics and well-funded Democratic challengers, are jeopardizing GOP House seats around Columbus and Cincinnati once considered safe.
The Republican seats thought to be most vulnerable—based on polling, fundraising, spending on negative advertising, and handicaps by independent analysts—are held by Reps. Deborah Pryce in Columbus and Steve Chabot in Cincinnati, as well as the district being vacated by Ney.
To a lesser degree, two other GOP seats also are considered in trouble: those held by freshman Rep. Jean Schmidt in and east of Cincinnati, and by Rep. Pat Tiberi in the Columbus area.
The nation's seventh-largest state doesn't track its roughly 8 million voters by party affiliation in general elections, the secretary of state's office said. But a University of Cincinnati Ohio Poll released early this month found that by 51 percent to 29 percent, voters think Democrats would do better than Republicans at job creation.
Ohio Republicans are counting on voters such as Peter Wagner, 37, a financial manager for the FBI. He thinks that America has done what it can in Iraq and he'd like to see the troops come home, but he still thinks that Republicans will do better for his state and his country.
Republicans also could get a last-minute boost from voters who worry that even if Democrats are saying the right things, they doubt they can do much better.
Rhonda Kokal, 43, a receptionist, said that her son, 22, is preparing to enlist in the military because he hasn't been able to find a job in two years. She wants the war to end. But she said: "It's not going to be, Democrats are in charge, everybody go home now."
Bill Combs, a 43-year-old electrical technician and divorced father from Batavia, voted Republican for a decade and twice backed Bush. He said that he figured the GOP's commitment to keeping corporate America healthy would translate to job security at the paper company where he worked.
But Combs was laid off late last year when his company downsized at home and looked overseas. His new job at a plastics plant came with a $6-an-hour pay cut, no pension and a shaky future. He drives a Ford pickup, expensive to fuel, because he wanted to buy American, but the Ford plant is closing anyway, and Combs worries that that will hurt the local tax base, public schools and the housing market.
He plans to vote for Democrats this year. And once his daughter is grown, he plans to leave Ohio.
"I'm not gaining anything in this world," he said, filling his truck with gas. "I don't have a good outlook for ever doing anything but surviving."
Here's a thumbnail sketch of where several key races stand in Ohio less than three weeks before Election Day:
GOVERNOR—An Ohio Poll released by the University of Cincinnati found Democrat Ted Strickland, a white congressman and a minister, leading Republican Ken Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state and a conservative African-American, 52 percent to 38 percent.
SENATE—The Ohio Poll found Republican incumbent Mike DeWine trailing his Democratic challenger, Rep. Sherrod Brown, 52 percent to 45 percent.
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES—The first three GOP House races listed below are considered the most vulnerable to Democratic takeover, while analysts consider the last two, which ordinarily wouldn't be in play, somewhat vulnerable.
_Rep. Deborah Pryce's district in Columbus. A member of the House leadership, Pryce touted her friendship with Rep. Mark Foley of Florida just before Foley was forced to resign in a sex scandal involving former congressional pages. Her opponent, Mary Jo Kilroy, is county commissioner whom voters know and who has financial backing from national Democrats.
_Rep. Steve Chabot's district, from Cincinnati to the Indiana border. Chabot faces a challenge from a locally known and well-funded Democrat, city councilman John Cranley.
_Outgoing Rep. Bob Ney's eastern rural district. The GOP's choice for a successor, Joy Padgett, a state senator, is thought to have an edge over Democrat Zack Space, but Ney's guilty plea this month in a federal corruption case could work against Padgett in the final weeks.
_Rep. Jean Schmidt's district in and east of Cincinnati. Schmidt beat Democratic war veteran Paul Hackett last year in a special election to replace GOP Rep. Rob Portman, now Bush's budget director. She was booed for calling war veteran Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a coward last year in a House floor debate on Iraq troop withdrawal, and Murtha is now campaigning for her opponent, Victoria Wulsin.
_Rep. Pat Tiberi's Columbus area district. He faces a well-funded challenge from a former Democratic congressman, Bob Shamansky.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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