Colleges May Aid DCCC

Posted June 24, 2008 at 6:52pm

Ohio State University sits at the heart of one of the country’s most competitive Congressional districts.

The Columbus school’s 53,000 students make up a large part of the district that a Democrat lost by about 1,000 votes in 2006.

But with Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) appeal to young voters prompting comparisons to President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, Democrats are hoping this might be the year that college students actually show up to the polls. And while the ultimate result at the top of the ticket might be uncertain, the impact further down the ballot could be a boost for Democratic candidates in competitive House districts with large college communities across the country.

Student voters, however, also present a conundrum for campaigns. While their often liberal-leaning ways make them easy Democratic targets, traditional voter-contact methods don’t always reach college students. What’s more, state election laws can make it complicated for students to meet residency requirements to vote in their school’s district.

In Ohio’s 15th district, Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy (D) lost her 2006 race to Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) by about 1,000 votes. Pryce announced her retirement last fall, but Kilroy is running again for the seat, this time against state Sen. Steve Stivers (R).

Obama lost Ohio’s 15th district by just half a percentage point in the March Democratic primary, despite losing the state by about 10 points. And in Franklin County, home of OSU, Obama defeated Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) by about 3,400 votes on March 4.

“You didn’t see this kind of action in the Kerry campaign in ’04,” OSU College Democrats President Zach Roberts said. “It just wasn’t there.”

Kilroy campaign manager Randy Borntrager said he expects Democrats to win more than three-quarters of college students who vote in the district.

“Even if we do a small amount, Mary Jo lost by [1,055] in 2006,” he said. “It’s not rocket science that the college vote will boost Mary Jo’s chances of victory.”

Stivers, however, currently represents a section of the OSU campus in the state Senate.

“Steve has always done really well on campus here,” Stivers campaign manager Michael Hartley said. “We have some things we’re going to do to really make him have a very good presence on campus.”

However, it seems that all of the campaigns’ efforts — from the presidential race to the bottom of the ballot — could come down to six short days when students arrive on campus this fall. Because OSU does not start classes until the end of September, campaigns will have less than a week to register students to vote before the 30-day pre-election voter registration deadline.

The madness will likely reach its peak on the five-day window in which students can still register to vote, but also participate in the state’s new early voting system. District residents can expect rallies in the first days of October, complete with shuttles busing students directly to the Franklin County registrars office about five miles from campus.

Democrats might hope to have Obama in town that week for a rally in battleground Ohio, which could be another draw for students. He already visited the campus before the Ohio Democratic primary in March 2008 and drew a crowd of about 8,000, according to local reports.

Obama also visited Bloomington, Ind., before the state’s May 6 primary. Home of Indiana University, Bloomington is located in Indiana’s 9th district, where the never-ending electoral war between Rep. Baron Hill (D) and former Rep. Mike Sodrel (R) is in its fourth cycle.

Monroe County, where Bloomington is located, is the most liberal county in the southern Indiana district. With about 70,000 Bloomington residents and 39,000 university students, Hill’s campaign has relied on the town to help him in his three close battles against Sodrel.

Monroe County also is the only county in the entire Congressional district that voted for Obama over Clinton in the Democratic primary.

Sodrel’s campaign manager, Ryan Reger, said the county is by far the most liberal in the district, mostly because of the students.

“Monroe County, even if you take the town and the students out of it, it tends to be more liberal,” Reger said. “But I would say the students turn it that way more than anything.”

However, Indiana, which recently passed a law requiring voters to show state-issued identification at the polls, actually dictates that voters cannot change their registration to another county for temporary employment or education purposes unless they plan to make their new address permanent. But that could be a difficult law to enforce, especially because the Monroe County government allows students to use their university identification at the polls.

Perhaps even without a politically active student population, often a more permanent community around the university can swing a district to the left. At schools across the country, liberal college towns can push candidates over the edge in bordering Congressional districts.

While most of the University of Arizona lies in Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s safe Democratic district, some of the 38,000 members of the university community live in Tucson, where freshman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) is defending her competitive seat against state Senate President Tim Bee (R).

Much of the University of Kansas’ 21,000-student campus in Lawrence is in Rep. Dennis Moore’s (D) district, but some of the community bubbles over into freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda’s (D) district. Kansas State University, which has about 23,000 students, is in the western portion of Boyda’s district.

Boyda might need the boost in the 2nd district, which voted for President Bush with 59 percent of the vote in 2004. She’ll face either former Rep. Jim Ryun (R) or state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins (R) in November.

In the end, however, the proof could be in the size of the school.

Charlottesville is home of the University of Virginia, which has more than 20,000 students in a 40,000-person town. The university makes up one of the most liberal parts of the 5th Congressional district, where Rep. Virgil Goode (R) is getting a challenge from attorney Tom Perriello (D).

Perriello spokeswoman Jessica Barber said that while the campaign is excited that Obama plays well with the college crowd, only 9 percent of the district is 18- to 24-year-old voters.

“We’re trying to get many of them registered here,” Barber said. “And it’s a large school, so it does have a very large Virginia population.”

But in population, few schools, if any, are larger than Arizona State University in the 5th district. ASU’s Tempe campus boasts a student body of nearly 50,000.

Rep. Harry Mitchell (D) won the district in an upset in 2006, and his Republican opposition for 2008 won’t be known until the September primary. He might have a tough race again depending on who wins the GOP nomination.

Yet whoever Mitchell faces, he might look a second time to the university community to put him over the edge in his Republican-leaning district — especially with home-state Sen. John McCain (R) at the top of the ticket.