National Democrats failed three times to recruit experienced elected officials to run against the Ohio Republican at the center of a lobbying scandal. Now, they're left with lesser-known contenders running against one of their top political targets in a race they've been touting for months.
Three men with more experience in countywide elected office and greater name recognition than the four Democrats who are running turned down offers by the party's national House campaign organization last year to challenge Republican Rep. Bob Ney.
Ney is a top target for Democrats in the 2006 elections because of his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. When Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud charges in January, he told federal prosecutors Ney took thousands of dollars in gifts, travel and campaign donations from him and associates in exchange for official acts.
"From (Ohio Gov.) Bob Taft to Bob Ney, Ohio is ground zero for voters who want real change from the status quo and the ethical scandals in government," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Taft, who has rock bottom approval ratings, pleaded no contest to ethics charges last year and was the first Ohio governor charged with a crime.
The Democrats have made Ney's race the bellwether for their attempt to erase a 231-202 GOP advantage in the House, but Ney said the fact that "the top-three tier people didn't run against me should tell Rahm Emanuel that the bell's already misshaping itself."
Ney has won at least 60 percent of the vote in all but two of his six House campaigns and ran unopposed in 2002. No Republican has won the presidency without Ohio, and the GOP has controlled state government for 12 years and holds 10 of 18 House districts.
Covering parts of rural, south-central Ohio to more populated, northeastern areas near the industrial city of Canton, Ney's district is Ohio's largest by area.
One of the Democrats who turned down Emanuel's recruiting efforts said Ney could be unbeatable, despite his troubles.
"He is well liked in the district. He enjoys broad-based support from labor unions and business. My own personal feeling is, until he is led off the floor of Congress in handcuffs, he'll be tough to defeat," state Rep. John Boccieri said.
Emanuel's committee declined to comment on recruiting issues, but is struggling to decide between Joe Sulzer and Zack Space, two of the four Democrats who did enter the race.
Sulzer and Space raised around the same amount of money, about $75,000 each, in the last three months of 2005, even though Space campaigned just five weeks.
But Sulzer, the mayor of Chillicothe on the far-western, less populated end of the district, gave his own campaign $100,000 while Space self-financed just $500 for the quarter, giving Sulzer the appearance of a $100,000 fundraising advantage.
Space, the law director in Dover on the other end of the district, raised more than double Sulzer's total in individual contributions, but national Democrats, such as Emanuel and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, gave Sulzer more than $25,000 to supplement his campaign.
By contrast, Ney faces little challenge from his own party. GOP House leaders forced him to give up a committee chairmanship temporarily and Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett has said he would ask Ney to step down from Congress if he is indicted, but the party is unfamiliar with his only primary opponent and the national campaign organization says it would not stop supporting the lawmaker unless he is convicted.
Tom Wiseman, a political scientist at Bowling Green State University and former Democratic mayor of the northwest Ohio city of Defiance, said the first three Democratic recruits — Boccieri, state Sen. Charlie Wilson and former state Senate Minority Leader Greg DiDonato — "are considered big hitters. They have the track record, experience and base, as opposed to the other two."
Brian Usher, a Democratic political strategist editing the forthcoming edition of the book "Ohio Politics," agrees that Sulzer, who was a state legislator in the 1990s, and Space, in his first elected office, don't have the same impact. Still, he said, the Democrats' chances for success remain in Ney's hands.
"It will be a dogfight all year, unless Ney is indicted and stays in the race. Then the Democrats have a very good shot," Usher said.
Sulzer was the first Democrat to declare his candidacy. He tried to downplay the party's recruitment problems, but acknowledged Wilson, Boccieri and DiDonato's greater name recognition.
"I don't believe they are the top people; they were just the familiar names," Sulzer said.