Voters in Ohio, a bellwether state that decided the 2004 presidential election, head to the polls Tuesday for a primary expected to foreshadow prospects for a national political sea change in November.
North Carolina and Indiana also have primaries Tuesday — including governors, Congress members and an election for district attorney in Durham County, N.C., where voters will decide whether to replace the prosecutor in the Duke University rape case.
But it is in Ohio, where the Republican Party has been beset by scandal, that politicians are looking for signs of voter dissatisfaction.
The race for the Republican nomination for Ohio governor has been painted as party outsider vs. party insider: outsider Kenneth Blackwell, the secretary of state who served in the Reagan administration and carries a Bible to events, against insider Attorney General Jim Petro.
Blackwell’s prominence as a leading black voice in the GOP could be pivotal to Republicans amid the state and national scandals. He is the first black person to run for governor in Ohio and is among a handful of gubernatorial candidates poised to draw from the Democratic Party’s typically loyal black base.
Blackwell’s ads have also hit on the state’s biggest scandals, seeking to taint Petro with connections to a state investment in rare coins that went awry and to tie him to Gov. Bob Taft, who pleaded no contest to four ethics violations last year involving a failure to report free golf outings and gifts.
In the rare-coin case, a trial is expected before November for the coin dealer, Tom Noe, a prodigious GOP fund-raiser and contributor charged with embezzling $1 million from a controversial $50 million state investment in coins and illegally funneling $45,000 to President Bush’s re-election campaign.
The Abramoff incident
Nationally, Republicans are coping with scandal from the investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which has ensnared Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio.
Petro, who lagged in polls published Sunday, has hammered Blackwell as a hypocrite who opposes abortion and gambling while some of his multimillion dollar stock portfolio is invested in those interests.
“I would only say that my opponent Ken Blackwell has never had a positive message,” Petro said while campaigning last week. “When people make an investment, they’re promoting businesses.”
The winner of the primary is likely to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland in November.
Strickland is viewed as the Democrats’ best chance in 16 years to regain some control over a state government where all three branches are controlled by Republicans.
His campaign, which has raised more than either GOP candidate, has been energized by the close resemblance of Ohio Republicans’ woes to those unfolding at the national level: accusations of government perks tied to generous political donations, administration officials being dragged into courtrooms and the accompanying dropoff in the popularity of the guy at the helm.
GOP eyes open congressional seat
Republicans, meanwhile, have targeted the House seat Strickland leaves open as one of its best shots nationally to gain a Democratic congressional spot. They have been helped by the fact the Democrats’ leading candidate must run as a write-in due to a filing mistake.
National Democrats and Republicans have spent roughly $1 million in the race, more than they have for any primary in the past decade.
In North Carolina, the rape investigation has focused intense scrutiny on Mike Nifong, the appointed district attorney who has worked in the prosecutors office for nearly three decades but is seeking election for the first time.
The winner will likely be the next district attorney since no Republicans are running. If no candidate wins at least 40 percent of the vote, the top two will advance to a May 30 runoff.
Other states, other races
North Carolina’s congressional candidates include former NFL and University of Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler, running as a Democrat for a House seat held for the better part of two decades by Republican Charles Taylor. Both are expected to advance in Tuesday’s primary.
Indiana’s nine congressional incumbents are expected to advance easily to November, with most challengers short on money and party support.
The bigger challenge is likely to come in November. Republicans hoping to retain their slim congressional majority are closely watching southern Indiana’s 8th and 9th Districts.
Sen. Richard Lugar, one of the most popular politicians in state history, has no race Tuesday — nor an opponent yet in November.