Against The Odds: How One Dem Incumbent Is Holding His Own In OH-GOV

Could Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland be a model Democratic incumbent for 2010? Saddled with a lagging economy, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative opponent and that whole “Pictures Of Me Standing With President Obama” thing, Strickland is running a strong race in a state where a Democratic governor hasn’t won a second term since the mid-1980s.

Strickland’s background as a rural Congressman is one factor in his current success. For more than a decade, Strickland represented rural and rustbelt voters in Ohio’s 6th District, experience his campaign says helps him target voters outside the traditional Democratic base in Ohio.

His Republican opponent, former Rep. and Fox News host John Kasich, is giving him some help in that regard as well. Though he’s about as conservative as they come, he’s finding that one of his few forays into bipartisanship years ago is costing him dearly. In 1994 Kasich voted in Congress for President Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban. Sixteen years later, the NRA has endorsed Strickland in the gubernatorial race. Strickland, unsurprisingly, is making sure rural voters know it.He’s also making sure Ohioans know about the other side of Kaisich’s past — his days as a highly-paid investment banker. Strickland has hammered Kasich on his Wall Street past for weeks, flooding the zone with talk of Kaisich’s past as managing director of the Columbus, Ohio branch of Lehman.

Kasich has largely ducked the attacks, claiming he wasn’t as plugged in at Lehman as Democrats like to say, but refusing to say much about his time there. “He has not disclosed the extent of his earnings at Lehman Brothers,” the Columbus Dispatch reported in May, “but [he] has allowed reporters to view – but not copy – one year of his tax returns, which his campaign has said was representative.”

Kasich has also been on the attack, slamming Strickland for the state’s dire economic straights. A standard line from the Republicans is “Ohio has lost nearly 400,000 jobs and unemployment has soared to double-digit territory since Strickland took office,” according to the Dispatch.

Kasich is also taking up the mantle of the tea party movement as he tries to rally the Republican base in Ohio. On a stop on his national book tour this morning, Kasich talked up his budget-cutting past on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and took on his own party, as is the fashion on the conservative right these days.

“We changed the numbers, but didn’t change the culture,” Kaisch said on the show. “The Republican party lost their minds, they became big spenders. became pork barrelers like everyone else.”

The result of the back and forth, five months before the general election? The TPM Poll Average shows Strickland ahead by a margin of 45.6-42.7.

That’s not a margin that should make either candidate confident in the future. Essentially, the race is a dead heat (most professional prognosticators call it a toss up.) But that’s a strong result for a Democrat facing an electorate full of economically frustrated voters this year.

The Strickland camp intends to build on their momentum so far by going after Kaisich in the redder areas of the state Strickland first leveraged back when he first won the governorship in 2006. A campaign source told me that the NRA endorsement will help, and will be the focus of targeted advertising aimed at conservative Democrats and rural voters.

A request for comment on the strategy from the Republican Governor’s Association went unanswered.

There’s anything but smooth sailing ahead for Democrats in Ohio, however. The Strickland camp says it fears an energized Republican electorate and the possibility that the economic news could get worse.

But for now, they feel pretty good about how things stand. As well they should — most incumbent Democrats would like to be where Ted Strickland is today.

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