The special election in Ohio’s 2nd district entered the home stretch this week, with former Rep. Bob McEwen (R) claiming momentum in his bid to return to the House and Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine (R) struggling to weather a storm sparked by his father’s decision to play a key role in a compromise over judges.
A total of 11 candidates are vying for the GOP nomination in next Tuesday’s primary, necessitated by Rob Portman’s (R) elevation to U.S. trade representative. But the race has largely boiled down to a battle between DeWine, the eldest son of Sen. Mike DeWine (R), and McEwen, who is attempting to wage a political comeback some 12 years after losing his House seat.
The suburban Cincinnati seat is staunchly Republican and whomever wins the GOP nod is all but assured of being the newest Member from the Buckeye State.
At the outset of the contest, many assumed it would be a cakewalk for DeWine, who has received a windfall of financial support from his father’s colleagues in the Senate. A poll conducted last week for McEwen’s campaign, however, showed the two men in a virtual dead heat. McEwen received 24 percent and DeWine 23 percent among the 300 likely primary voters surveyed June 1-2. The poll, which had a 6 percent margin of error, also showed McEwen with a large lead among voters within the party’s conservative base — including those who identify themselves as National Rifle Association and Christian Coalition supporters.
“It clearly shows that McEwen has incredible strength among [likely] voters,” said Public Opinion Strategies pollster Gene Ulm, who conducted the survey. “It sure shows DeWine’s vulnerabilities.”
But perhaps more telling in the poll’s results was the difference in the perception voters had of the two men.
The poll found that while 40 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of DeWine, nearly as many, 36 percent, had an unfavorable image of him. McEwen’s favorable/unfavorable rating was 51 percent to 5 percent.
“I’d sure as heck rather be where we are than where he is,” Ulm added.
DeWine’s high negatives, sources say, are attributed to a mix of factors — most prominent among them his father’s role in last month’s compromise that avoided a showdown over the “nuclear” option in the Senate.
DeWine’s decision to join the “Gang of 14” brokering the deal has angered conservative activists and, McEwen supporters argue, energized those voters who were already most likely to go to the polls next week. Those voters, who weren’t likely to support Pat DeWine anyway, could turn out en masse in an effort to send a message to his father and party moderates all over the country.
Sen. George Voinovich’s (R-Ohio) crusade against the nomination of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations hasn’t helped matters either.
The actions of the two Ohio Senators, considered blasphemous by much of the GOP base, have dominated conservative radio outlets in recent weeks.
While much has been made of the impact that the Senator’s role in the judicial fight may have on his son’s campaign, the increased talk about conservative values has also given the opponents of the younger DeWine an opening to remind voters of his personal troubles.
DeWine’s messy divorce, finalized last year, and an extramarital affair became the focus of an attack ad in his campaign for Hamilton County commissioner in 2004, although the spot backfired and DeWine won the race.
Ulm said that while the ad may have backfired among the broader electorate at the time, the information it contained has not been forgotten by hard-core Republicans.
“It was scarring amongst these voters,” Ulm said. “The people who know Pat DeWine most, like him least and that’s a very tough situation to be in.”
For his part, DeWine’s actions largely speak for themselves.
After beginning the race as the clear favorite, late last week DeWine went on the air with negative ads attacking McEwen’s tenure in the House. Over the weekend voters in the district began receiving automated telephone calls paid for by DeWine’s campaign that carried the same message.
The TV and radio spots, titled “Bouncin’ Bob,” make reference to 166 overdrafts McEwen had with the House bank in the 1980s as well as the fact that he has been a Washington, D.C., lobbyist since losing his seat in 1992.
“In Congress, he ran the most expensive office of any member from Ohio,” says a script of the call, which mirror’s DeWine’s ads. “He bounced over one hundred and sixty checks during the House banking scandal. And for the last twelve years, Bob McEwen hasn’t even lived in Ohio. He’s been in Virginia working as a lobbyist. Bob McEwen, we already voted him out of Congress. Why would we send him back?”
“McEwen’s candidacy is a paper tiger, once people hear about his record his support collapses,” said one DeWine adviser.
McEwen has been touting his conservative record and his tenure in the House during the Reagan administration, while also emphasizing his ability to recoup his seniority would be a big benefit to constituents back in the district.
“All of the indicators are moving in our direction,” said a source within the McEwen camp. “The movement, in addition to where the ballot test is, is dramatic.”
Last Thursday, DeWine was booed by a audience of about 100 at the Anderson Township Republican Club, in Hamilton County, which later rated DeWine as “not qualified at this time.”
The next day, DeWine skipped a debate sponsored by the Citizens for Community Values because the group’s president had endorsed McEwen.
All told 16 Republicans and Democrats are running to succeed Portman. Last week, candidates filed pre-primary fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission.
DeWine far outpaced all candidates in money raised, taking in $455,000 through May 25 and at least $250,000 since then. DeWine has raised more than $200,000 from political action committees and his fundraising report was a who’s who of former and current lawmakers and members of the Cincinnati business community.
The list of GOP Senators who have given money to DeWine, either through their personal campaign or PACs, includes mostly includes many of the chamber’s old bulls and leaders: Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Than Cochran (Miss.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Rick Santorum (Pa.), Charles Grassley (Iowa), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Trent Lott (Miss.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Ted Stevens (Alaska), John Warner (Va.), John McCain (Ariz.), Gordon Smith (Ore.) and Bill Frist (Tenn.).
The $5,000 donation from Frist, the Senate majority leader, was recorded on May 23 — the day the Senate compromise was forged.
Several of Mike DeWine’s former colleagues also donated to his son’s campaign including: Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), Spence Abraham (R-Mich.), Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.). Former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) and his wife, Harriet, gave $250 each.
Former Secretary of the Senate Gary Sisco donated $1,000 and former high-ranking Senate staffers Cesar Conda and Manus Cooney each gave $500.
At least three members of the Ohio GOP delegation donated to DeWine, Reps. Bob Ney, David Hobson and Steven LaTourette, as did Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).
Former GOP Reps. Bill McCollum (Fla.), Bob Livingston (La.), Jack Quinn (N.Y.) and Asa Hutchinson (Ark.) also gave.
DeWine’s parents each gave the maximum $2,100 contribution to their son, while Mike DeWine’s Senate office chief of staff gave $1,000.
Other contributors were Michael Brown, president of the Cincinnati Bengals and Carl Lidner, chairman of American Financial Services and one of President Bush’s “Ranger” fundraisers.
DeWine has lent his campaign about $50,000 to this point.
McEwen’s list of contributors is much less star studded and he has largely self-funded his bid to this point.
Through May 25, McEwen raised just over $200,000, half of which came in the form of a personal donation. He loaned himself another $150,000 yesterday in an effort to keep his campaign advertising up on TV and radio through next Tuesday.
Among the more interesting contributors to McEwen’s campaign are former Sen. Bill Armstrong (R-Colo.) ($2,000) and Chuck Colson ($500), the former Nixon White House aide who was imprisoned for his role in the Watergate scandal.
Former State Rep. Jean Schmidt and state Rep. Tom Brinkman are among the others seeking the GOP nod. Schmidt has loaned herself at least $100,000 and has had some presence on television and radio.
Ulm said that with a large field the race could unexpected result.
“With a week to go, anything could happen,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with Faye, a pot belly pig, after a news conference held by Citizens Against Government Waste at the Phoenix Park Hotel to release the 2015 Congressional Pig Book which identifies pork-barrel spending in Congress, May 13, 2015.