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A Puppy In A Sombrero Enters The Ohio Election Fray

Proving that even the most local of races can turn nasty in a swing state, a new campaign attack is stirring up trouble in a key Ohio state house race. A GOP-produced flyer that circulated this week criticizes Democrat Connie Pillich, who is running in Hamilton County's 28th District near Cincinnati, for opposing a law to make English Ohio's official government language. Pillich, a lawyer who previously served in the Air Force and ran for the same house seat in 2006, said in May that HB 477, which would require all government proceedings and records to be kept in English, would "waste taxpayer dollars."

The controversial flyer depicts a small dog wearing a sombrero with the words "Can you speak Spanish?" splashed on the top of the page; a bubble exclaiming, "Ay Caramba" juts from the pooch's mouth. On the flip side, the flyer tells voters to "Call Connie Pillich today... and ask her what's wrong with English?" It was produced by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is based in Virginia and seeks to get Republicans elected to state positions around the country. The RSLC declined to say how many flyers were sent out or to whom, but it seems they were circulated widely enough to catch local officials' attention--and fast. (At this point, I have to ask: What is up with dogs in attack ads this year, particularly in races involving women?)

Pillich's campaign has called the flyer offensive and dangerous to the candidate's family because it includes her home phone number. (Her opponent, local mayor Virgil Lovitt, has claimed to know nothing about the flyer, as has the Hamilton County Republican Party, whose chair called the attack "wrong and repugnant.") The leader of the Cincinnati Hispanic Chamber wrote the county's GOP a letter in which he asked, "Are the members of Cincinnati's Hispanic community sub-human, unworthy of proper respect as human beings?"

But RSLC spokeswoman Carrie Cantrell insisted the flyer isn't racist. "It's a parody of a popular culture figure," she told TNR, referring to the Taco Bell Chihuahua. She also said the RSLC printed only the phone number found on Pillich's campaign website (which, based on a TNR phone call, connects to both the campaign office and the candidate's home.)

Observers say the race's increasingly negative tenor is due to the fact that Republicans, long the powerhouse in the county, are losing ground--and statewide strategic importance--as the number of local Democratic supporters grows. Whereas for decades, Hamilton County voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates, including presidential contenders, four years ago, the Republican nominee for governor almost lost there. Bush's margin of victory in the county declined by roughly 20,000 votes between his two elections, and two years ago, Pillich lost in the 28th District by fewer than 2,000 votes.

With an intense battle for partisan dominance raging, it seems Hamilton County voters can expect more visits from state and national candidates, as well as additional attacks in the Pillich-Lovitt race. Hopefully, though, ethnic groups, small dogs, clowns (yes, clowns), and other innocents will be spared.  

--Seyward Darby