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Get out your map and draw a big fat bulls-eye on Ohio. The state looks to be a test of whether the GOP can bounce back strongly after two terrible election cycles, and that makes it a possible bellwether of whats going on nationally.
Not quite three years ago, a Democratic wave in Ohio swept Republicans out of all but one of the states top offices. Then-Rep. Ted Strickland won the governorship, bringing former state Attorney General Lee Fisher along with him as lieutenant governor. Richard Cordray won the state treasurers race, Marc Dann was elected attorney general and Jennifer Brunner was elected secretary of state.
The lone Republican elected statewide, by the narrowest of margins, was Mary Taylor. Taylor, 43, won election as state auditor with 51 percent, a margin of fewer than 50,000 votes out of more than 3.8 million cast.
Taylors victory was all the more surprising given that her partys nominee for governor, Ken Blackwell, drew just 37 percent more than 460,000 fewer votes than Taylor. Then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R) drew just 44 percent in his unsuccessful bid for re-election.
It wouldnt be an exaggeration to say that after controlling the state for years, the Ohio GOP got slaughtered in 2006 and again in 2008. In addition to losing the states top offices, the party lost a U.S. Senator, four U.S. House seats and its majority in the Ohio House of Representatives over the past four years.
But timing is everything in politics, and Ohio once again looks like a barnburner in next years midterm elections.
Stricklands opponent in his race for re-election will be former Rep. John Kasich (R), 57, a high-energy populist conservative who will have to defend himself against Democratic attacks that he was a managing director at Lehman Brothers, the financial services firm that declared bankruptcy in 2008 and helped trigger the nations financial crisis
Strickland, 68, starts as the favorite in the race, though his job approval numbers arent as stratospheric as they once were.
The race is worth watching not only because of the states size and reputation as a swing state, but also because Ohios governor is one of three statewide officeholders on the state Reapportionment Board, which draws the state legislative districts after the next census. Plus, if Kasich wins, he could have a hand in deciding who carries Ohio in the 2012 GOP presidential primary.
Republican Taylor is one of the other members of the Reapportionment Board, and she, too, will have a fight on her hands. To challenge her, state Democrats have recruited Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper, 37, a former Cincinnati city councilman.
A graduate of Yale and Yale Law School, he is the son of former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper. Most observers believe that Taylor, who served in the state Legislature and is a certified public accountant, will begin the race with a slight advantage, but this no slam-dunk for her.
The third vote on the Reapportionment Board belongs to Ohios secretary of state. But the incumbent, Brunner, is running against Fisher for the open-seat Democratic Senate nomination. Party insiders have urged Brunner to drop her Senate bid, and she is likely to come under continued pressure to do so after her third-quarter fundraising was so weak. But she recently reiterated her intention to stay in the race.
Brunners open seat looks to be a battle between state House Minority Leader Jennifer Garrison, 47, a Democrat from Marietta, and Republican state Sen. Jon Husted, 42, a former Speaker of the Ohio House. Democratic insiders had expected Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown (D) to be their partys nominee, but she unexpectedly dropped out of the race earlier this month.
The two other statewide contests are also interesting, though for different reasons.
DeWine is now running for one of his old jobs attorney general. The post is currently held by Cordray, 50, who won a special election to fill the vacant office after Dann was forced to resign after becoming embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal.
In the state treasurers race, Kevin Boyce (D), 38, who was selected by Strickland to fill the post when Cordray become attorney general, faces state Rep. Josh Mandel (R).
Boyce, who is black, previously served on the Columbus City Council. Mandel, who is Jewish, was undergraduate student body president at Ohio State University and served two tours of duty in Iraq as a member of the Marines. Mandel, 32, represents a normally Democratic Cuyahoga County (Cleveland)-based legislative district in the state House.
Given the youth of many of the statewide hopefuls (five are under 45), some of the winners are likely to show up in future gubernatorial and Senate races.
Next years Senate race is also crucial. With moderate Republican George Voinovich retiring, a Democratic win by either Fisher or Brunner would put another liberal Democrat in the Senate, while a victory by former Rep. Rob Portman (R) would confirm that the state had swung back to its competitive norm.
Two House seats, Rep. Mary Jo Kilroys Columbus-based 15th district and Rep. Steve Driehaus Cincinnati-based 1st, will also be at risk. Republicans need to win at least one, and possibly both, to have a chance to have the kind of banner year that they are hoping for.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.