A presidential election puzzle:
Why hasn't the White House told Taft to clean up the Ohio GOP scandals before the election?
Republicans in Ohio have long been known for their ability to sort out internal rivalries and clean up their political messes relatively quickly and quietly. So it is unusual to see the Ohio party now floundering in scandal, especially in a presidential year when Ohio might make the difference.
One would expect that the White House would have intervened by now, insisting that Gov. Taft bring the legislature back to pass a series of campaign finance reforms to get this scandal behind them before the election. So far, however, Bush has not weighed in, or he has not done so emphatically enough.
August 23, 2004
The situation was well illustrated by the events of August 23. That morning, the Washington Post ran a John Harris story detailing the current Ohio GOP scandals, and concluded "Polls show that only a small percentage of Ohio voters remain undecided about the presidential race. But among those few, the problems at the state level could become a factor at the national level if these voters conclude that Republicans are the party of entrenched power in both Washington and Columbus."
Reporters were skeptical, asking: "How is this any different from the press conference you held two years ago?" Taft replied: "You haven't heard this before: We're going to get this done before the end of the year. If it takes a long December session, so be it."
A questioner pointed out that, as governor, Taft could call the legislature into special session to pass campaign reforms in September (Ohio Constitution, Article III, § 3.08). Taft replied that the reforms wouldn't take effect until the next campaign, and anyway "the House" didn't want to have a special session. He thus missed the point that much of the scandal had come out of the Ohio House, and that Taft doesn't need the House's permission to call a special session.
Taft's press conference continued in this vein, until by the end Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell had publically broken with Taft to call for campaign finance reforms before the election, not during the lame duck session.
If the press conference was intended to make the questions in the Washington Post story go away, it did not succeed:
Now that the National GOP Convention is over, maybe it is time for President George Bush to call fellow Bonesman Bob Taft (whose great-great-grandfather, Alphonso Taft, co-founded the Skull and Bones Society in 1833). Bush can let Taft know that presidential politics is serious business, and that he doesn't intend to see his chances imperiled because of Taft's inaction.
A primer on Ohio politics: The three rules, all now broken
Until recently, understanding Ohio politics has required learning three rules:
Rule #1: No party can hold the Governor's Office for longer than 8 years.
This rule -- known as "the pendulum" -- took hold in 1905 and lasted until 1998, when Bob Taft won the governorship, succeeding fellow Republican George Voinovich. With Taft's re-election in 2002, the GOP is now enjoying the longest single-party control since 1822.
Rule #2: No Ohioan can be elected governor or U.S. senator unless they have already run and lost for one of those offices.
This pattern began in the mid-1950's and held without exception until 1998. The main reason was that Ohio's population is not concentrated in one or two cities. To win, candidates have had to know inside-and-out the politics of seven distinct metro areas. Only California, Texas, and Florida are similarly difficult to master. In 1998, the rule was broken when Bob Taft won the governorship without having previously lost for either governor or U.S. senator.
Rule #3: Democratic candidates can be elected statewide if they win Cuyahoga county (Cleveland) by at least 100,000 votes.
The charts below show that this is no longer so. In the charts below, the vertical axis units are thousands of votes.
On the above chart, the 100,000-vote rule applied in 1978, 1982, and 1986, but not since. Starting in 1990, Democrats haven't had a 100,000-vote margin in Cuyahoga county, but it wouldn't have helped anyway, since downstate votes would have swamped it.
U.S. Senate campaigns
Similarly with U.S. Senate campaigns, the 100,000-vote rule applied until 1992. Since then, Democrats have been lucky to carry Cuyahoga county at all, let alone by a 100,000-vote margin. Had they done so, it wouldn't have overcome huge Republican margins elsewhere. This chart combines the results from all recent U.S. Senate races in Ohio: John Glenn v. Thomas Kindness (1986), Howard Metzenbaum v. George Voinovich (1988), John Glenn v. Michael DeWine (1992), Joel Hyatt v. Michael DeWine (1994), Mary Boyle v. George Voinovich (1998), and Ted Celeste v. Michael DeWine (2000).
The most striking features of this chart are the two Republican spikes, Nixon in 1972 and Reagan-Bush I in the 1980's. The Democratic margin in Cuyahoga county mattered in 1976, 1992 and 1996, the only three elections where Democratic candidates won the presidency. Generally, however, even though the Cuyahoga margin has been reliably above 100,000, the statewide outcomes had more to do with downstate swings. Most recently, Al Gore took Cuyahoga county by 167,000 votes in the 2000 election, but lost the rest of the state by 332,000.
What happened in 1998?
According to the rules, 1998 should have seen the end of GOP control of state government. After eight years, the Voinovich Administration had lost its way, covered in scandal. As the campaign began, the governor's powerful Chief of Staff, Paul Mifsud, was serving a jail term for concealing a kickback. In Cincinnati, a federal grand jury was investigating state government corruption involving the governor's brother Paul Voinovich, state prison contracts, and the notorious Waste Technologies Industries hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool.
The Governor's Office was the Democrats' for the asking. Instead the Republicans won everything again in 1998. This was because in the 1990's, instead of preparing for the next swing of the pendulum, the Ohio Democratic Party turned to dust.