Nervous GOP Eyes Ohio Vote

Posted December 7, 2007 at 6:30pm

Washington, D.C., Republicans might be going in the red to keep Ohio’s 5th district that color in tomorrow’s special election.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has poured 16 percent of its available cash on hand into the special election for a seat that should have been safe.

As of press time Friday, the NRCC had spent $410,700 on the campaign, which pits state Rep. Bob Latta (R) against 2004 and 2006 Democratic nominee Robin Weirauch.

Although most political professionals originally saw the race as safe for Republicans, the recent influx of cash and media attention has led Washington operatives to say it is much closer than they originally thought — and some Republicans say Latta’s campaign strategy is to blame.

Tuesday’s winner will replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor (R), who died in early September. Latta’s father, former Rep. Del Latta (R), held the seat before Gillmor. The junior Latta lost the 1988 GOP primary against Gillmor to succeed his father by a couple dozen votes.

The district’s long Republican tradition of almost 70 years, plus Latta’s high name identification, led many Republicans to assume the seat was safe. But when national Democrats started funding Weirauch, who was off the party’s radar in the past two cycles, the race picked up.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had put $244,700 into the race as of Friday, and Weirauch had received contributions from Members or their political action committees totalling almost $100,000. Through the end of October, the DCCC had more than 10 times as much money in the bank as the NRCC.

Although the candidates and party committees weren’t releasing any polling late last week, both sides agreed the race could be fairly close — and many Republicans were flabbergasted.

“The [GOP] Members are running around saying, ‘What just happened?’” said a Washington Republican with knowledge of the district. “To put it bluntly, they’re pissed off. People are angry that Bob Latta hasn’t devoted himself better on the campaign trial to connect with northwest Ohio voters and given an opportunity to an opponent who was so far off the radar and actually made it a race.”

The Republican pointed out that Weirauch is far from her most public endorser, popular Gov. Ted Strickland (D), on the political spectrum when it comes to many issues that are important to the rural northwest Ohio district. Strickland, a moderate, has been hitting the campaign trail hard for Weirauch, also appearing in a television ad for her campaign.

“It’s like the Latta campaign is trying to write a handbook on how to lose a Congressional campaign in 60 days or less,” said the Republican. “When Bob Latta lost the first Congressional race back in 1988 to then-Ohio Senate President Paul Gillmor, he was a young kid with no electoral experience. He came close and people always expected he would be back. But if Bob Latta loses this race to Robin Weirauch, a candidate who Gillmor defeated twice with barely a sweat, it will be an enormous embarrassment to Latta personally.”

Latta’s campaign manager Matthew Parker defended the campaign and said the Republican source should “get out of Washington and come into the district and start knocking on doors.”

“I’d like this reliable source to maybe get his facts straight,” Parker said. “This is a tough campaign. We’re working hard. No one ever thought it would be easy.”

Parker said Democrats have put 10 times more money into this race in negative campaigning against Latta then they ever spent against Gillmor.

“I know that the things tighten whenever the Democrats spend a lot of money demonizing Bob Latta for petty things as far as voting for a budget bill in 2003. …” said Parker. “Unfortunately when enough money is telling a lie, some people start to believe it. I think that’s what you can attest some of the tightening in this race to.”

Recent polling data from the district is scarce. One poll released just after the Nov. 6 primaries showed Latta with a very comfortable double-digit lead. In the past couple of weeks, however, operatives on both sides acknowledged that the polls have tightened significantly, although no one would go on the record with specific numbers.

But because this is a special election in which turnout is expected to be low, it’s doubtful polling could be much of a predictor in a contest taking place two weeks before Christmas.

Huron County Republican Party Chairman David Kniffin said that although he’s confident Latta will prevail Tuesday, he’s pleased about getting financial support from the NRCC.

“I don’t think you take a chance on something that is this unusual, this time of year, in such a short time frame,” Kniffin said. “Why would you want to? It just wouldn’t be something that’s smart politics.”

Kniffin said he doesn’t expect Latta to win with the margins Gillmor did, but attributed that to Latta’s tough primary against state Sen. Steve Buehrer (R).

“I think it will be close just because of the bitterness of the primary, but I’m confident that Bob Latta will prevail,” he said. “I’m confident that he’s turned the corner. It could have gotten ugly.”

Van Wert County Republican Party Chairman Marty Burchfield conceded that absentee voting returns he had seen were closer than expected. He said the party affiliations corresponding to the ballots show “there’s a little more activity on the Democratic side than there has been in the past.”

“Normally we would have a little higher distribution of Republican versus Democrat than we have now,” Burchfield said.

Absentee voting activity is expected to increase this cycle in part because voters no longer have to list a reason for not being able to get to the polls on Election Day. But despite this, Burchfield said he still had no reason to believe “this is an even race” and is confident that Latta is ahead.

Whatever problems the campaign may or may not have had after the primary, NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said Latta is on the path to victory.

“In the last 10 days, the Latta campaign has made several district-wide swings and continues to penetrate the district with a strong message of fighting for lower taxes and secure borders,” Spain said. “They are doing all the right things at the right time.”

Latta, who must drive two hours to Columbus to attend to business in the state Legislature and has refused to miss votes despite the intensity of the campaign, released a packed schedule Friday that includes events featuring former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and other popular Republican figures in the district.

Nonetheless, some Washington Republicans are puzzled as to why such a large portion of the NRCC’s $2.56 million in cash on hand is headed to a district that gave President Bush more than 60 percent of the vote in 2004.

“In this environment they should have ran a better race,” said a Republican insider. “If you let a week or two slide, then things get away from you. A campaign should always be prepared to run a strong campaign right out of the gate.”

Meanwhile, in Virginia’s 1st district special election, which also is taking place on Tuesday, the NRCC appeared Friday to have topped out at about $82,000 in independent expenditures on a race that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has largely ignored.

As of Friday, the NRCC’s last big expenditure came on Dec. 4, when it reported $27,000 in spending for mailers against Democratic nominee Philip Forgit. On Wednesday, the National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund poured in about $5,000 for endorsement postcards for Republican state Del. Rob Wittman, who is clearly favored to win the race to fill the seat of the late Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.).

With national funding not what he had hoped for when the race began, Forgit, who is an Iraq War veteran and award-winning teacher, has been seeking financial aid from the state’s Democratic Congressional delegation as well as state political leaders. Every Democratic member of the delegation has contributed to Forgit, and Gov. Tim Kaine (D) was scheduled to hold a fundraiser for the candidate on Saturday in Williamsburg. Meanwhile, former Gov. Mark Warner (D) is scheduled to headline a rally for Forgit today.

John McArdle contributed to this report.