McEwen Aims For a Comeback

Posted April 27, 2005 at 6:53pm

It’s been more than 12 years since former Rep. Bob McEwen (Ohio) last ran for Congress, losing a GOP primary to Cincinnati attorney Rob Portman, the man he now hopes to succeed in the House.

McEwen is part of what is shaping up to be a crowded GOP field in the yet-to-be-set special election to replace Portman, who is awaiting confirmation to become the next U.S. trade representative.

But while many former Members who attempt to wage political comebacks often have the luxury of high name identification and establishment backing, McEwen’s campaign lacks both and has been met with more head-scratching than enthusiasm among party insiders.

“Most of the Republicans in the House are sort of like, ‘Bob’s a nice guy, what on earth is he doing?’” said one Ohio Republican Member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “At one time he was a very effective guy, years ago, and he got beat … and he can’t get it out of his blood.”

Since announcing his bid earlier this month, McEwen has been canvassing the state’s GOP delegation for support.

While most Ohio Republicans are publicly keeping their powder dry, three Members are among the special guests at a May 19 Washington, D.C., fundraiser for Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine (R), the early frontrunner in the race to succeed Portman. DeWine’s father, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), is the other featured guest at the campaign kickoff event.

None of the three lawmakers — Reps. Steven LaTourette, Bob Ney and Patrick Tiberi — served with McEwen, who was in the House from 1980 through 1992. Of the 12 Republicans in the Ohio delegation only five served with McEwen.

LaTourette stressed that his endorsement was a function of his ties to the DeWine family and nothing more.

“I don’t know Bob McEwen, but I know Pat DeWine,” LaTourette said. “I think he’s going to make a great Member of the delegation.”

Still others, like Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) who represents the neighboring 1st district, say he will leave the race entirely up to voters.

“I’m staying out of that all together,” Chabot said.

In an interview Wednesday, McEwen brushed off notion that the event is any indication he lacks support from would-be colleagues.

“Let’s just say, I’m very satisfied with the relationship I have with the Congressional delegation,” McEwen said.

So, why does he want back in the game now?

“You like to do things that you feel that you’re skilled at and I care very deeply about our country and the questions that we’re facing, both internationally and domestically over the next few years, are things that I feel Ohio can use a strong voice on,” McEwen said.

The timing of the open-seat contest was also right for McEwen’s family. He’s just finished raising four teenagers.

“Now, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back into the fray,” he said.

McEwen’s opponents, however, will argue that he’s hardly been a stranger on Capitol Hill since his tenure ended — having been a lobbyist and living in Northern Virginia for more than a decade.

McEwen, who recently bought a condominium in the district and lists both Fairfax Station, Va., and Hillsboro, Ohio, addresses on his personal Web site, scoffs at the charges of political opportunism.

“I’ve been very active in the state,” he said. Ohio “has always been my home and it continues to be my home.”

McEwen also made clear that his past service in the House — including the potential to recoup his seniority and his previous “experience on highways, job creation, bridges, etc.” — will be a central theme in his campaign.

“Being able to pass the baton without starting back at the starting gate again is of interest to local officials and to people with whom we share common values with,” he said. “My concern is leadership, not losing the seniority that the Ohio delegation is entitled to in my judgement.”

Old Wounds

But there are also portions of his House tenure that McEwen may not be so eager to confront again.

The House Bank scandal became a major issue in his bitter 1992 primary against then-Rep. Clarence Miller (R-Ohio), after it was revealed that McEwen was one of the most frequent abusers of the privilege with 166 overdrafts. McEwen eventually won the redistricting-forced race by a 286-vote margin, but had been severely weakened for the general election.

Some say that McEwen’s problems were exacerbated by his mishandling of them. Looking back, he now admits he could have done things differently.

“I’m sure I should have handled it better and differently, and it was a mistake on my part but you learn,” McEwen said.

The overdraft scandal wasn’t McEwen’s only brush with controversy during his 12-year House tenure.

In the wake of the Savings and Loan scandals, McEwen ranked 19th out of 187 Representatives listed in a 1990 Common Cause report on Members who received significant contributions from S&L-related sources during the 1980s.

While more than three dozen Members rushed to purge the tainted funds from their campaign coffers, McEwen refused to give back any of the $32,075 in S&L-related campaign money he had received and bristled when asked about the funds.

“This witch hunt against good, decent people must end,” he told Roll Call at the time. “People need to put a stop to this…. This is just so unfair.”

In November 1992, McEwen was defeated by now-Rep. Ted Strickland (D) in what became another nasty contest.

Many Republicans blamed the loss on McEwen’s debilitating primary with Miller, who some believe could have beaten Strickland in the November election.

“It wasn’t the overdrafts,” Strickland argued in an interview Tuesday. “It was the way he dealt with the issue. He did not handle it well.”

Less than three months after his 1992 defeat, McEwen attempted his first political comeback by entering a special election race in the neighboring 2nd district.

He lost to Portman in the March 1993 election, winning 30 percent of the vote and all four of the rural counties outside of Hamilton County. Portman was backed late in the race by Rep. Willis Gradison (R-Ohio), who was vacating the seat.

During the special, Strickland’s office weighed in, releasing documents that indicated McEwen’s top aide had used government computers to print political memos for the 1992 campaign. Strickland also said $10,000 worth of computer software was missing from the 14 computers he inherited from McEwen.

McEwen insisted at the time that the aide, Bill Pascoe, had no formal role in the campaign. Pascoe, who served as McEwen’s chief of staff for his last six months in office, admitted he used the office computers to print campaign-related documents but said the work had been done on his own time.

To this day, Strickland still believes the issue is a serious matter.

“I think that’s quite significant,” Strickland said, adding that he’s carried “no ill will or animosity” against McEwen.

As for his McEwen’s latest comeback, Strickland believes it will be an interesting race to watch.

“Family values is as family values does,” he said.

Back to the Future

On its face, the 2nd district race appears to be the antithesis of McEwen’s 1992 primary against Miller, where he had a geographic advantage and was initially viewed as the favorite.

Although McEwen estimates he’s represented close to 70 percent of the current 2nd district at one time or another, some portions he last represented more than two decades ago.

“People don’t remember Bob McEwen in this district,” said another Ohio GOP Member speaking on the condition of anonymity. “When you’re gone this long from Congress, it’s very difficult.”

In recent surveys he has registered in the low single digits in ballot tests. One poll showed that just over 50 percent of the respondents recognized his name.

DeWine, meanwhile, has near-universal name identification in the district and has had a double digit lead in the same polls.

Still, some caution that McEwen candidacy is not to be taken lightly. He, like the other half-dozen Republicans in the race, is already positioning himself to be the alternative to the younger DeWine, and he enjoys early support from social conservatives.

According to McEwen’s campaign site, he has already received personal endorsements from Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, conservative talkshow host Ollie North, former Housing and Urban Development secretary and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, former Secretary of State Ed Meese, former U.S. Attorney General Phil Burress and Lori Viars, President of the Warren County (Ohio) Right To Life.

Pat DeWine’s divorce and personal controversies were used against him in what became an extremely negative and personal County Commission primary race last year, and the issue without a doubt will be a factor in his Congressional campaign.

Whether McEwen or any of the other candidates in the GOP primary can position themselves as the sole beneficiary of the anti-DeWine vote remains to be seen.

Life After Congress

McEwen’s personal Web site, www.BobMcEwen.com, lists a lengthy history of his professional accomplishments and also offers close to a dozen CDs and DVDs on topics ranging from politics to terrorism to marriage.

“An outstanding communicator, Mr. McEwen is a leading advocate for pro-family interests and free-market economics,” the Web site reads. “As such, he maintains an active international speaking schedule.”

McEwen and his wife are also volunteer speakers at Family Life Marriage Conferences in the United States and Canada.

His campaign Web site touts McEwen as a “Presidential Advisor, Respected Statesman,” noting his service as a special presidential envoy to Presidents Reagan and George Bush as well as a representative to the European Parliament from 1985 to 1993.

McEwen said he plans to run for office the way he always has: “Paint a picture of what I believe in and then ask for support.”

Still, he hinted he may have to make some adjustments considering the campaign trail he’s now hitting is very different from the one he was accustomed to.

“My campaign style has always been to look square at people and talk about what I believe in and where I think we should go and my beliefs,” he said. “I’ve never attacked other candidates and I’ve never responded to attacks. That is problematic in the new era, that when you do not respond to an untrue attack, you’re then made vulnerable.”