WASHINGTON – Practically nowhere in the country are ethics and political corruption more finely focused than in Ohio — a state where Republicans are on the receiving end of unrest and where Rep. Bob Ney appears to be the most at risk incumbent in the upcoming midterm election.
"Certainly, the corruption overshadowing everything in this district is problematic. It's created a loss of faith in the process," said Zack Space, the Democrat who will try to unseat Ney in November.
"More and more people are becoming aware of Bob Ney's legal problems," added Democrat Joe Sulzer, who lost to Space in last Tuesday's Democratic primary. "They are absolutely disgusted with what is going on in government."
But Ney, 51, a six-term incumbent of Ohio's 18th district, told FOXNews.com that his Democratic opponents are desperately trying to run in the November midterm on a pessimistic message, one that attacks him for crimes he did not commit.
Although he was forced to step down from his post as chairman of the House Administration Committee in January over his connections to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Ney insists he retains the support of the Republican grassroots and leadership in his district, Congress and among some Democrats, too.
"The party has been good to me, they've stood behind me," he said just before winning the May 2 primary, beating Republican James Broadbelt Harris 68 to 32 percent. "And I have a lot of Democrats who have stood by me and I very much appreciate their words to me and their actions for me. They have been fair."
As for the campaign environment against a backdrop of state Republican scandals, low approval ratings for Congress and his own problems, Ney acknowledged it won' t be an easy summer.
"I'm not saying after months of being bombarded, it's going to be an easy election," he said. "[But] I didn't do anything wrong and I'm just proceeding as I always have."
Political observers insist that Ney is vulnerable. Republican sources say if the former teacher is indicted in the ongoing federal bribery and corruption probe, then he might be encouraged to resign before the election.
"If the election were held today, Bob Ney would win," said a national Republican Party source who did not want to be identified.
However, if an indictment would be added to the mix, "hopefully he would resign," and let the party put someone else up to run against Space in November. Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett has also stated publicly that he would ask Ney to resign if he were indicted.
Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who was forced last year to resign his post as House majority leader under a cloud of indictments and ethical problems, recently vacated his House seat to make way for a stronger GOP candidate in his district.
Ney was identified as "Representative #1" in court documents that led to a plea agreement that Abramoff made in the federal probe in January. Abramoff admitted to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe members of Congress and their staffs. Ney is under the microscope for allegedly taking contributions and gifts in the form of trips, concerts, sporting events and meals from Abramoff and Tony Rudy, a former aide to DeLay who recently pleaded guilty to charges his conspired to bribe members of Congress with Abramoff.
On Monday, Ney's former chief of staff and later lobbyist Neil Volz was pleading guilty to two minor corruption charges in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Volz's charges are conspiracy to commit honest services fraud for, among other things, accepting expensive trips and gifts while working for the congressman; and violating the so-called revolving door law that bans former staffers and legislators from taking up any lobbying activities for one year after leaving Capitol Hill.
Volz, whose name is one of many to have arisen in the blowback from the Abramoff scandal, potentially faces five years for these offenses, but sources say they believe that time could be significantly reduced, in part because he is believed to be cooperating in continuing investigations of other figures, including his former boss.
Ney allegedly reciprocated for his favors by introducing legislation to help Abramoff's Indian tribe clients and entered language into The Congressional Record denouncing the business practices of a cruise line owner with whom Abramoff was in a dispute. Abramoff has since pleaded guilty to separate fraud charges in connection with his purchase of the cruise line in Miami.
Ney has not been charged in any of the corruption probes, nor has he been referred to the House ethics committee. He aggressively maintains his innocence.
"Fact will be separated from fiction," Ney said as he continues to campaign throughout the district that includes a wide swath of eastern Ohio, hugging the outer suburbs of Columbus to the West Virginia border.
Encapsulating 16 counties, this is the largest district in the state and is mostly rural, with a strong history of farming and manufacturing. It leans Republican. In 2004, President Bush won this district over Democratic Sen. John Kerry 57 percent to 43 percent.
But Democrats say voters in Ohio have become increasingly wary of Republicans after a series of high-profile scandals among public officials there. Notably, Gov. Bob Taft last year acknowledged his role taking secret gifts from lobbyists — his approval ratings in the state have dropped as low as 17 percent in recent weeks.
"These are all facets that create a perfect storm," said Brian Rothenberg, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party. "It makes fertile ground for our Democrats in 2006, and, the fact that Bob Ney is subjected to this endless investigation is eroding his numbers."
But state Republicans say the Democrats are gambling that their "culture of corruption" message will steal support from Ney, who was so popular at one point that he had no primary or general election opponent in 2002. He won his last re-election by 66 percent and the 2000 race by 64 percent.
"Congressman Ney continues to receive really strong support from voters in the district — in fact, he's been endorsed by either the party or party chairman in all 16 counties," said state GOP spokesman John McLelland, who noted that that Ney "hasn't been at all hesitant about addressing [the Abramoff matter] with the people he represents.
"[Democrats] talk about this 'culture of corruption,' but the fact is, congressional races are really run from the ground up and are based on ideas and a vision for moving forward," said McClelland. "[Democrats] are about protest and pessimism and they have nothing to talk about."
Both Ney and Space say jobs are a primary issue for this district, particularly since unemployment is now higher than both the state and national averages. Voters here are also concerned about the rising cost of health care, veterans' benefits and the war in Iraq.
Some analysts have said the Democrats did not take full advantage of Ney's seeming vulnerabilities by recruiting a "top tier" candidate to challenge him in November. But Space said he is confident he can overcome that hurdle.
"I'm not sure there is a person in the district that has more name recognition than [Ney] right now," he said. "But it's not positive, it's not the type of name recognition one wants."
FOX News' Ian McCaleb contributed to this report.