Ohio 15: For Some Incumbents, Vulnerability Is Already a Fact of Life

Stuart Rothenberg September 21, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

It’s just after Labor Day of the off year, but at least a dozen House incumbents who narrowly won last year already have formidable opponents for 2010. One of the most vulnerable surely is Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio), a freshman who represents Union and Madison counties, as well as a part of Franklin County. (She represents all but the east side of Columbus.)

Kilroy served two terms on the Columbus Board of Education before winning election on the Franklin County Commission in 2000. Four years later, she won a second term. In 2006, she ran for Congress against then-Rep. Deborah Pryce (R). While late polling in that race showed Kilroy ahead of Pryce, who was then in the GOP leadership, the Congresswoman won re-election, by just 1,062 votes. Most observers (including me) were surprised.

Pryce took the close call as an opportunity to leave Congress as a winner, opening up a swing district that had been inching toward Democrats and seemed almost certain to go Democratic in 2008. Republicans had recruiting problems in the district until Steve Stivers, who had been appointed to fill a vacant state Senate seat, reversed an earlier decision and decided to make an uphill run for Congress.

Given her previous race, the lack of an incumbent, the public’s desire for change and the Republicans’ disastrous image both in the state and nationally, Kilroy looked like an obvious favorite to win the contest.

On election night, almost complete results showed her trailing very narrowly. But a few days later, when all of the results were in, Kilroy won by 2,312 votes — a margin of less than 1 point.

Kilroy spent $2.6 million in the race compared with Stivers’ $2.4 million, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spending almost double what the National Republican Congressional Committee did in the district — $2.1 million to $930,000.

This time Stivers is back, and the landscape is almost certain to be dramatically better for the Republican.

Last year, Gov. Ted Strickland (D) was popular, while outgoing President George W. Bush was a weight around the neck of his party and his party’s Congressional candidates. At the same time, presidential nominee Barack Obama was a strong motivator for turnout among African-Americans, young people (Ohio State University is located in the district), Democrats and many independents. Obama won the district 54 percent to 45 percent.

This cycle, Strickland’s numbers are down and the Ohio GOP has begun its rebound. Democrats won all but one of the statewide offices in 2006 (Mary Taylor squeezed out a win in the state auditor’s race at the same time as the GOP gubernatorial nominee was losing by 24 points and the party’s sitting U.S. Senator was losing by more than 12 points), but virtually every single one of the statewide races should be competitive in 2010. No matter how those races fall next November, the state landscape will be different, and vastly improved for Republicans, than it was in 2008.

Maybe more important, 2010 will be about Obama and Kilroy, not Bush and Stivers. Kilroy now has a record on controversial federal issues, including votes on a climate change bill, with its cap-and-trade provision, and stimulus bill (both of which she supported), to say nothing of health care reform.

While the Congresswoman’s record certainly will please some, Republicans will be able to paint her votes in an unfavorable light, particularly if unemployment remains high, the economy’s rebound is sluggish, and the deficit balloons.

Moreover, midterm elections tend to bring out voters who are dissatisfied and want to express their displeasure. As of now, that should help Republicans because conservatives are angry and recent polling suggests that independent voters, who behaved liked Democrats for the past two election cycles, are starting to look more like Republicans in their displeasure with Obama.

Finally, last year, two lesser candidates on the ballot drew almost 27,000 votes. One of them was a Libertarian, and that party may well field another candidate next year. But the other name on the ballot, Don Eckhart, was an Independent who opposed abortion and stem cell research and was endorsed by Ohio Right to Life.

Eckhart drew 12,915 votes last time — almost certainly taking more votes away from Stivers than Kilroy. While it’s unclear whether another pro-lifer will be on the ballot next year, the Columbus Dispatch reported in July that Eckhart said he does not plan to run again.

Democrats are already dusting off some of the same attacks that they used last year against Stivers, calling him a lobbyist for the banking industry. Given the industry’s reputation, the charge undoubtedly will resonate with some. But it’s not new.

Kilroy will need to alter the fundamentals of next year’s race by making it a referendum on the challenger, Stivers. That’s not impossible, but it is difficult, especially because Stivers has already been under the microscope.

Last time, Stivers and the NRCC tried to make the race about Kilroy, but they failed because the electorate’s mood was so strongly inclined against the GOP.

Kilroy is sure to be well-funded, and the district is so narrowly divided that a close race appears to be inevitable. But the arithmetic is very difficult for the Congresswoman, and that makes her one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.