Famous Names Don’t Always Carry the Day

Posted June 10, 2005 at 5:08pm

The special election in Ohio’s 2nd district is proving once again what we should never forget: Having a well-known political name can be an asset in an election, but it doesn’t guarantee victory.

For every Dan Boren or Connie Mack IV — politically successful sons whose fathers served in Congress — there is a Scott Armey or a Brad Smith, political wannabes who failed to ride a parent’s coattails to Capitol Hill.

Hours after Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine, son of Sen. Mike DeWine (R), entered the race to fill the vacancy created by the nomination of then-Rep. Rob Portman (R) to be United States trade representative, some people were handing him the GOP nomination.

While his three main competitors were all credible, neither former Rep. Bob McEwen, former state Rep. Jean Schmidt nor state Rep. Tom Brinkman possessed DeWine’s assets.

But as the final hours of the campaign wind down, the younger DeWine finds himself locked in what some describe as an uphill fight, with his personal life a matter of public discussion and his famous father’s political performance a double-edged sword.

[IMGCAP(1)]Pat DeWine had everything going for him. With an electoral base in populous Hamilton County in the Cincinnati area, a well-known father who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1994 and a number of key endorsements, he seemed well on his way to a seat in the House.

But the commissioner’s past and present have taken a political toll on him.

A few years ago, Pat DeWine left his wife when she was pregnant with their third child. But it was worse than that. He was openly involved with a woman, an African-American lobbyist, with whom he still has a relationship.

Cincinnati, of course, has been the scene of tense race relations for years, and situated as it is on the cusp of the South, it has also been known to be one of the more conservative big cities in the nation. (The city fought to bar the showing of an exhibit of sexually explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1990.) So it wouldn’t be a leap to believe that DeWine’s personal behavior was at least controversial, and possibly quite scandalous, to some 2nd district residents.

Republican insiders who have been following the House race closely acknowledge that some GOP primary voters may hold DeWine’s personal life against the Hamilton County commissioner.

Some of those same insiders note that DeWine’s personal life was a campaign issue in his last race, so they treat the issue as an old one with which the public was already familiar. In that 2004 race, DeWine’s opponent for Hamilton County commissioner ran a TV ad that linked a DeWine vote to his relationship with the lobbyist, but the attack apparently created a backlash, and the younger DeWine won.

But others think the personal scandal is the “pre-eminent reason,” as one insider put it, for DeWine’s collapse. They note that district voters outside Hamilton County, who tend to be more conservative, hadn’t previously been aware of DeWine’s personal life, and the news that the commissioner was having an ongoing relationship with a black woman to whom he was not married didn’t play well with them. Hamilton County constitutes less than 40 percent of the district’s voting age population.

What everyone agrees on is that DeWine’s personal life undoubtedly turned some GOP voters against him, limiting his appeal so that if and when another shoe dropped, he had no margin for error.

That other shoe dropped a couple of weeks ago, when his father joined six other Republican Senators to participate in a deal to avoid a showdown over federal judges.

When I spoke with Pat DeWine prior to the judicial compromise, it was clear that he didn’t want to talk about his father’s possible role in a deal. Indeed, he behaved as if I had the bubonic plague.

Sen. DeWine’s participation in the bipartisan deal set off a firestorm of protest among Ohio conservatives, who have seen their two Senators, DeWine and George Voinovich, show an unusually strong independent steak. Voinovich, of course, undermined President Bush’s nomination of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Pat DeWine’s already high negatives shot up even higher after the Senate deal was announced. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one interested observer of the grass-roots conservatives’ reaction to the judges deal.

DeWine is countering with a heavy media campaign, aimed primarily at McEwen, who pulled even with or ahead of DeWine in late polls. One particularly tough TV ad refers to McEwen’s overdrafts during the House Bank scandal, his votes to “scale back” the Reagan tax cuts, his office spending while in Congress and his Virginia residence over the last dozen years.

But some observers believe the race’s fundamental dynamics have changed. They say that with DeWine and McEwen attacking each other heavily, primary voters are looking for an alternative.

This has suddenly improved the outlook for Schmidt and Brinkman chances, and it has brought the Club for Growth into the race at the last minute with a TV spot that criticizes Schmidt — whom the group regards as the sole unacceptable candidate of the top four — and boosts the conservative Brinkman.

If DeWine does goes down to defeat, it will please conservatives who want to send a message to the state’s two Republican Senators. But no matter how the House race ends, Mike DeWine has reason to hold his head up high.

The Senator had to know that joining the bipartisan deal on judges would anger conservatives and potentially hurt his son’s electoral prospects. But he did what he thought was right for the country and for the Senate. And for that at least, the Senator deserves credit.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report
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