You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Mood Indigo

A Democratic revival.

Columbus, Ohio

This is shaping up to be the Democrats' year. According to current polls, the party stands to make significant gains in the House, the Senate, and statehouses across the country this November. And it's not hard to see why: the botched Katrina response, high gas prices, scandals in Congress and in the states, and, most of all, the quagmire in Iraq. Discontent with the Bush administration's conduct of the war is affecting even the gubernatorial races. At a recent meeting in a posh Cincinnati suburb, a group of Republicans supporting Democratic candidate Ted Strickland voiced to him their unhappiness with the war. "They expressed great concern about the war and its cost," Strickland tells me--"not just in terms of dollars, but lives and national prestige."

But the Democratic surge this year isn't just the result of GOP missteps. If the Democrats do manage to reclaim the House or even the Senate, it will be because voters have resumed their decade-long movement away from conservative Republicanism and toward the kind of centrist Democratic politics that Bill Clinton espoused. In 2002 and 2004, this shift was overwhelmed by national support for the president in the wake of September 11 and the invasion of Iraq. But the administration's subsequent failures at home and abroad have dimmed the GOP's reputation as America's protector and allowed the early trend to reemerge.

The evidence can be seen in states like Ohio and Colorado, where I traveled this summer and interviewed voters and candidates. George W. Bush won both states in 2000 and 2004; in Ohio, Republicans have won every statewide nonjudicial race since 1992. But, this year, Democrats could unseat as many as five House Republicans in Ohio and win a Senate seat and the governor's mansion. In Colorado, Democrats are very likely to win the governorship and both state legislatures, and to take as many as three House seats from the Republicans. And, in both states, it's not just a sudden and fleeting reaction to Bush, but the resumption of a movement among upscale suburban voters and working-class Reagan Democrats. America may not turn blue this year, but it looks as if it is definitely becoming purple.

First, the big picture: There are 40 districts where Democrats have a chance of taking a Republican seat in November. In Tom DeLay's Houston district and Bob Ney's east Ohio district, the opportunity has arisen primarily because the incumbent Republican has been forced out by scandal; Democrats may win, but they will have difficulty retaining these seats. Many of the other 40 districts, however, have already begun turning Democratic in national elections. John Kerry carried 14 of them in 2004, and Al Gore carried 16 in 2000. In nine of the remaining districts, Bush won by 8 percent or less in 2004. Like the old Southern Democratic seats that eventually became Republican, these seats can be expected to change hands eventually, even if not in this election.

Some of these Democratic-shifting districts are socio-economic hodgepodges, but there are two clear types that emerge. The first is suburbs of older manufacturing regions in the East, Midwest, and West that have shifted to producing high-tech information services. These areas are heavily populated by professionals--from scientists and software programmers to teachers and nurses-- who began voting Democratic in the late '80s and early '90s in response to the GOP's embrace of the religious right and adoption of a deregulatory, anti-New Deal business agenda. Democratic support in these areas was particularly high among women voters and voters with a postgraduate education. This profile fits the southeastern Pennsylvania suburban congressional districts currently held by Republicans Jim Gerlach, Curt Weldon, and Mike Fitzpatrick; the suburban Seattle district currently held by Republican Dave Reichert; the three Connecticut districts held by Republicans Chris Shays, Nancy Johnson, and Rob Simmons; and the Columbus district occupied by Republican Deborah Pryce.

The second kind of district where Democrats have a chance of unseating Republicans is white, working-class, and located in or near a mid-sized city like South Bend or Louisville. Voters in these districts tend to be less affluent, less educated, and more socially conservative. They are likely to be Catholics rather than evangelicals and to have had at least one family member who was, at one time, in a union. Many of them were Reagan Democrats who supported Clinton, but, after September 11, streamed back to the GOP because they believed Republicans were better equipped to wage the war on terrorism. These voters--and particularly white working-class women--provided the margin of Bush's 2004 victory in states like Ohio and Florida. But, distressed by the Iraq war, worried about gas prices and economic dislocation, and disgusted by Republican obeisance to K Street, they have begun to return to the Democrats.

Districts where this shift is visible include retiring Representative Sherwood Boehlert's upstate New York district, Representative Marilyn Musgrave's rural Colorado district, retiring Representative Jim Nussle's Iowa district, and Republican Geoff Davis's Kentucky district. The Northern Indiana district held by Republican Chris Chocola--one of three in the state that fits this profile--is pretty typical. While it has rural evangelicals, it also includes blue-collar and heavily Catholic LaPorte and St. Joseph counties, which Clinton carried in 1996 and Gore carried in 2000. Economic issues, including gas prices, loom large in these districts. In a July Research 2000 poll matching Chocola against his Democratic challenger Joe Donnelly, voters put the war in Iraq and the economy first and second in their list of concerns, with taxes, spending, and the war on terrorism trailing behind.

Democrats are running very different races in these two kinds of districts. In Gerlach's upscale Montgomery County district (where Philadelphia's Main Line is located), Democratic challenger Lois Murphy is attacking Gerlach for his opposition to abortion. In working-class southern Indiana, Democrat Baron Hill is trying to focus on the economy while neutralizing his opponent Mike Sodrel's appeal on social issues. In a current ad, Hill declares his belief "that marriage between a man and a woman is sacred."

In Senate races, Democrats are mounting the most credible challenges to Republican incumbents in states that Clinton won and that were at least competitive, if not Democratic, in the last two presidential elections-- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Missouri, to name a few. In these states, they are benefiting from the same trends as the Democratic House candidates, especially the shift by women back toward the Democrats. In a Harris poll taken last month, women nationally favored the generic Democratic over the Republican congressional candidate by a stunning 50 to 28 percent. Similar margins show up in the individual Senate races. In the August Keystone poll in Pennsylvania, for instance, Democrat Bob Casey led incumbent Republican Rick Santorum by 47 to 34 percent among women voters--even though Casey is pro-life. In an August Survey USA poll in Ohio, Sherrod Brown led incumbent Republican Mike DeWine by 53 to 38 percent among women.

In part thanks to the shift in women's votes, Democrats are also making some headway among working-class Reagan Democrats. Brown leads DeWine among voters who attended but didn't graduate college--the demographic group that most clearly matches the white working class. In a Survey USA poll in Washington state, where Republicans hoped to pick up a seat, incumbent Democrat Maria Cantwell leads challenger Mike McGavick by 52 to 37 percent among these voters. (In her 2000 race against Slade Gorton, exit polls showed Cantwell losing them by 56 to 41 percent.) And, in Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill leads incumbent Jim Talent by nine points among these voters.

The 2004 presidential election hinged on who won Ohio, and, this year, the most important election results may once again take place in the Buckeye State. In part, Ohio voters are turning to the Democrats for the same reasons as voters elsewhere. As Democratic House candidate Mary Jo Kilroy explains while we drive toward an event at a Catholic Church in Columbus, "Voters no longer believe that, by fighting the insurgents in Baghdad, we are protecting Buffalo. " But Democrats are also benefiting this year from subterranean changes in Ohio politics.

Ohio was home to the Republican Party after the Civil War (it produced Republican Presidents Hayes, Garfield, McKinley, Taft, and Harding), then shifted to the Democrats during the New Deal, and then shifted back to the Republicans as the heavily unionized industrial cities of the North began to lose jobs and people. It used to be that a Democratic candidate who came out of Cleveland's relatively liberal Cuyahoga County with more than a 100,000-vote margin could win any statewide contest. But, in 2004, Kerry won Cuyahoga by more than 200,000 votes and still lost the state. The balance of power in Ohio politics had moved back to small-town Ohio and to the Taft family's Cincinnati.

Quietly, however, both Cincinnati and Cleveland are being displaced by Columbus as the fulcrum in Ohio politics. Once described as a "cowtown," Columbus has become a booming center of banking, insurance, and high-tech, as well as the home of Ohio State University and the state government. Franklin County, which contains Columbus, now boasts a population of 1.1 million, compared with 1.3 million for Cuyahoga and 806,000 for Cincinnati's Hamilton County. Moreover, where Franklin County once could be counted on to supplement Cincinnati's Republican vote, it has been trending Democratic. In 1988, George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis by 60 to 39.1 percent here. But, over the last three presidential elections, Franklin County has backed the Democratic nominee in increasing numbers, culminating with a 54 to 45 percent victory for Kerry in 2004. "If you look at Columbus and Franklin County," says Alec Lamis, a Case Western Reserve political scientist and co-editor, with Brian Usher, of Ohio Politics, "you can understand where Ohio is going."

Indeed, it's possible it could get there as soon as this year. As important as Brown's Senate race may be--he's currently leading incumbent DeWine by a 6 percent margin--the key race in Ohio is for governor. According to state election law, the governor, with the support of either the secretary of state or the auditor, can reapportion state legislative districts at any time--a fact that accounts for the highly cyclical character of Ohio politics. In 1990, Republicans won back the governorship and the secretary of state and were able to redistrict the legislature to ensure a Republican majority would determine the congressional reapportionment for the '90s. In the 1998 elections, they won all three top offices and were able to reapportion Ohio again following the 2000 census. If the Democrats were to win the governorship and either the secretary of state's or auditor's office--and there is a very good chance they will--they could dramatically alter the distribution of congressional and statehouse seats.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Strickland is currently well ahead in the polls, thanks in part to scandal and dissension in the state GOP. Republican Governor Bob Taft pled guilty last year to failing to report gifts, many of which were from Bush pioneer and rare coin dealer Thomas Noe, who is accused of bilking Ohio's Workers Compensation funds out of millions of dollars. And, while the national GOP has been able to keep business and the religious right under one political roof, the two are filing for divorce in Ohio. In this year's gubernatorial primary, religious conservatives boosted Secretary of State Ken Blackwell over Taft's attorney general, Jim Petro, who was the candidate of the business moderates. The victory of Blackwell, a doctrinaire economic and social conservative who supports a flat tax and favors banning abortion without any exception for the mother's life, has left Ohio Republicans bitterly divided.

Moreover, Democrats nominated the perfect candidate to oppose Blackwell. Strickland is a former minister who represented a conservative rural district in southeast Ohio. A National Rifle Association supporter and opponent of partial-birth abortion, Strickland neutralizes Blackwell's appeal to many rural and small-town voters while assuaging Democrats with his support for raising the minimum wage and increasing access to health insurance. As a result, polls currently show him ahead by two-to-one over Blackwell, not only in traditional Democratic areas but also in the rural southeast. He's even winning support from business leaders alienated by Blackwell's social and economic views. Last month, Republican lawyer Randy Saxbe, the son of former Attorney General Bill Saxbe, held a fund-raising party for Strickland at Columbus's New Albany Country Club. If Strickland routs Blackwell, as seems likely, his coattails could help elect other Democrats, including Brown, Kilroy, and the four other Ohio House candidates who stand a chance of unseating Republicans.

In August, speaking before a surprisingly large Friday afternoon crowd in a small town north of Columbus, Brown expressed the optimism that many Ohio Democrats feel. "I expect to wake up in the morning after the election to discover two newspaper headlines," he predicts. "The first will say democrats take the house and senate. The second will say ohio turns blue." Brown probably won't be proved right about the Democrats winning back the Senate. But he could well be right about the House and about Ohio.

The other state that might change color after the midterms is Colorado, and there, too, the governor's race could make a big difference. Like Ohio, Colorado tilted Democratic through the '80s, but, as conservative migrants from Texas and Southern California moved into Colorado Springs and Douglas County south of Denver, the state began to turn red. By 1998, both of Colorado's senators and four of its six House members were Republicans, and the GOP controlled the governor's mansion and both houses of the state legislature. In 2000, Gore ceded Colorado to Bush without a fight. But, like Ohio, Colorado has been quietly turning Democratic. Democrats won the state senate in 2000; after Republicans reclaimed it in 2002, the Democrats won it back again in 2004, along with the state assembly. Also in 2004, Democrat Ken Salazar won the seat vacated by Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Salazar's brother, John, picked up a House seat in Pueblo. And, this year, Democrats stand a very good chance of continuing their comeback.

In Colorado, as in Ohio, the religious right has sown divisions within the Republican Party. After Republicans won back the state senate in 2002, social conservatives, led by Colorado Springs evangelist James Dobson, introduced four bills targeting gay rights (one of them forbidding teachers in public schools even to mention homosexuality and another endorsing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage). The right's agenda was defeated, however, by a coalition of Democrats, moderate Republicans, and West Slope libertarians disgusted with Colorado Springs's domination of state politics.

Colorado Springs social conservatives also joined with anti-tax activists to oppose Referendum C, which modified the state's draconian anti-tax law to allow it to use surplus tax funds to repair state services rather than refund them to taxpayers. The referendum nonetheless passed last November with the backing of Republican Governor Bill Owens and state business and labor leaders. But, this year, Republicans nominated a gubernatorial candidate, Representative Bob Beauprez, who has threatened to overturn it. In August, Beauprez nominated as his running mate Janet Rowland, a county commissioner known for recently having compared homosexuality to bestiality. "For some, bestiality is an alternative lifestyle. Do we allow a man to marry a sheep? At some point, we have to draw a line," Rowland declared on Colorado public television in March.

Colorado Democrats, by contrast, nominated former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter to oppose Beauprez. Like Ohio's Strickland or Pennsylvania's Casey, Ritter is moderate, or even conservative, on social issues--he is pro-life and opposes restrictions on guns--but liberal on economics. And, as a supporter of Referendum C, he has attracted considerable support from moderate Republicans and from business leaders, enabling him to raise more money than his Republican opponent. Like Strickland, he is well ahead in opinion polls and could have long coattails. Former State Senator Ed Perlmutter, for example--a seasoned politician who led the Democratic resurgence in the statehouse--has a good chance of taking Beauprez's former seat in Denver's northeastern suburbs, which, like Franklin County, have been quietly trending Democratic in the last six years. Because of a split between conservative Republicans, Democrats even have an outside chance in retiring Republican Representative Joel Hefley's Colorado Springs district.

The Republicans, of course, are not without resources of their own. The Democrats are not likely to threaten the GOP in Deep South states like Alabama and Georgia. Florida, which looked like a swing state in 2000, will probably retain a Republican majority and the governorship in 2006, even if, as expected, incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson trounces challenger Katherine Harris. The GOP will also maintain its hold on exurban districts like Colorado's upscale Douglas County, where Representative Tom Tancredo presides amid the gleaming shopping malls and office buildings that line Interstate 25 from Denver to Colorado Springs. And Republicans continue to enjoy almost the same level of support among white male voters that Democrats have enjoyed among their female counterparts. As I found in Ohio, white male voters who have become disillusioned with President Bush or with the local Republicans aren't necessarily turning toward the Democrats, but, rather, away from both parties, like the Perot voters of the '90s. That's not good news for the Republicans, but it doesn't suggest a massive Democratic realignment, either.

Republicans are also fully aware of the challenge they face this year, and they have begun to take countermeasures. In districts where Bush is unpopular, incumbent Republicans, such as upstate New York Representative John Sweeney or Albuquerque Representative Heather Wilson, are stressing their constituency services. A Sweeney radio ad has a constituent saying, "I am so grateful to Congressman Sweeney for all the support he has given Hudson Headwaters Health Network and especially our health center here in North Creek."

Other Republicans are trying to distance themselves from the White House by adopting iconoclastic positions on stem-cell research or the war in Iraq. In a TV ad, Deborah Pryce boasts that she "stood up to her own party and fought for millions for stem-cell research." New Jersey's Thomas Kean Jr. is vying with incumbent Senator Bob Menendez to see who can oppose the Iraq war more stridently. Other Republicans are concealing or downplaying the fact that they are Republicans at all. Missouri's Jim Talent doesn't reveal his party on the front page of his campaign website. In his first TV ad last July, Talent, a Newt Gingrich protege, highlights his nonpartisanship. An announcer intones, "Most people don't care if you're red or blue, Republican or Democrat. They don't use words like `partisan' or `obstructionist.'"

Just as Democrats are using Republican opposition to stem-cell research and the minimum-wage increase to divide the Republican base and mobilize their own, Republicans are resorting to wedge issues to pick off potential Democratic voters. One of these is opposition to illegal immigration. While that won't have much effect in a state like Ohio (where, quips Brown, "some say immigration starts with an `e'--emigration"), it will be important in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Colorado, and Arizona. In Colorado, Democrats thought they had neutralized Republican appeal by agreeing to a tough state bill denying benefits to illegal immigrants. But, in Beauprez's old Seventh District, conservative Republican Rick O'Donnell, whose support for privatizing Social Security and initial opposition to stem-cell research should doom his candidacy, has put Perlmutter on the defensive by attacking him for being soft on illegal immigrants. Santorum has also succeeded in fanning nativist sentiment against Casey in Pennsylvania.

Over the next decade, that tactic could clearly backfire on Republicans. By appearing to scapegoat legal and illegal immigrants alike, Republicans could alienate Latinos, ceding to Democrats a voting bloc that will determine elections in Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Florida, Illinois, and other large states. The Republicans eventually lost California because, in 1994, they supported Proposition 187, which denied social benefits to illegal immigrants. By trying to restrict immigration, Republicans like Tancredo also risk alienating business Republicans, who tend to support the McCain-Kennedy approach. But what could damage Republican prospects in 2008 or 2012 might still help them win elections this year. In California, after all, the backlash took two years to develop. In 1994, Republican Governor Pete Wilson used Proposition 187 to score a come-from-behind reelection victory. It was only in 1996 that Republicans in the state began to pay a political price.

One test of this wedge strategy will be in the Arizona district of retiring Representative Jim Kolbe. The district itself is composed of socially liberal east Tucson and more conservative border counties. Kolbe, openly gay and the House sponsor of the McCain-Kennedy guest-worker bill, backed moderate Mike Huffman in the primary. So did the National Republican Congressional Committee. But right-wing activist Randy Graf, who pledged "zero tolerance" for illegal immigrants and was backed by Tancredo's PAC, defeated Huffman. Now Graf faces former State Senator Gabrielle Giffords, who backs a guest-worker program. If the Democrats can mobilize the district's Latinos, who make up almost one-fifth of the district but who have a history of political apathy, and combine that with support from white voters in Tucson put off by Graf's extremism on social issues, Giffords could take this seat. But Graf will be able to take advantage of the pervasive fear of "Mexicanization" in this part of Arizona.

And, of course, Republicans are once again claiming that their party is better equipped than the Democrats to keep the country safe. In a TV ad this summer, DeWine accused Brown of "weakening America's security" by voting "against strengthening criminal laws for terrorist attacks." In suburban Philadelphia, Curt Weldon insisted to a CNN interviewer that Iraq and the war on terrorism were intimately related. "We either fight them there, or we fight them in the supermarkets and streets here," he said. With the right mix of external circumstances--for instance, further developments like the Heathrow plot and the recent Osama bin Laden video--these kind of appeals will still have some effect. They worked two years ago, in spite of continuing reports of carnage in Iraq. But, if they don't work, or don't work as well as they did in 2004--if voters this year are resistant to believing that, by sending troops to Baghdad, they are protecting themselves from attack in Buffalo or Columbus-- then the Democrats will regain the political momentum they lost after September 11.

This article originally ran in the September 25, 2006 issue of the magazine.