The votes don't add up

Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, accused of suppressing votes during the 2004 election, faces daunting polls of his own in his race for governor.

Published July 24, 2006 1:15PM (EDT)

The devastating poll results for Republican Ken Blackwell in Sunday's Columbus Dispatch -- showing him 20 points behind his Democratic rival in his bid to become the most conservative big-state governor in modern times -- would try the faith of any candidate. Instead, Blackwell spoke passionately for more than a half-hour Sunday morning to the congregation at the Pentecostal Potter's House Church of God as he testified to his Christian faith and to his belief in a thin permeable membrane separating pulpit and politics.

Although no explicit reference was made to the gubernatorial campaign (the candidate was identified only as Ohio's secretary of state), this omission was a see-through fig leaf since Blackwell is as well known to evangelical voters as Paris Hilton is to connoisseurs of trashy gossip. When pastor Tim Oldfield described Blackwell as "a wonderful Christian man" and invited him to the pulpit, the applause was so raucous that Oldfield felt obligated to remind his largely white, but decidedly interracial parishioners, "This is not a political rally."

The 6-foot-4 Blackwell is a formidable presence behind a lectern, as he speaks in the inspirational cadences of a candidate who was reared in the black churches of Cincinnati. Even though Blackwell quoted four separate Bible passages, invoked Solzhenitsyn, Nietzsche, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, told an elaborate story about his boyhood work in a funeral home and a 400-pound corpse's "last gasp," the political message was never far from the surface. "We're expected to take a position in defense of the institution of marriage," Blackwell declared, conjuring up his successful efforts to champion an anti-gay marriage amendment to the state Constitution in 2004. "We're expected to draw the line against the taking of innocent life by abortion on demand. We cannot retreat into the sidelines, we must be totally engaged."

It is hard to imagine a more literal example of a politician preaching to the choir. But even though a statewide network of churches like the Potter's House is central to Blackwell's long-shot dreams of victory, many personal details of his life were little known to the roughly 400 members of the congregation who attended the morning's second service. The 58-year-old Blackwell earned concerned gasps when he revealed that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer six years ago and then won a supportive round of applause when he announced that, with God's help, he is now cancer-free.

"Life is about ups and downs," Blackwell said, using words that could easily describe his political career that has been built around more than a decade of waiting for a clear shot to run for governor. "It's about mountaintop experiences and valley experiences. But what God wanted to lift me up and make me see is that it is the same God with you on the mountaintop that is with you in the valley."

After the service, I sat with Blackwell in the worship hall to discuss the seeming valley of death of his gubernatorial campaign. It takes a formidable talent for blarney for Blackwell to put a smile-button face on a poll that shows him trailing five-term Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland by 47 percent to 27 percent with a 2 percent margin of error. Even more devastating is the degree to which Blackwell's fire-breathing conservatism appears to be repelling moderate voters: Independents are breaking for Strickland better than 3-to-1.

"This poll hasn't told us anything that Fred Steeper's polls haven't told us going in," said Blackwell, referring to the handiwork of his own pollster. "And that is that the environment is not necessarily favorable [for Republicans] and Ted is pretty much a blank slate. So his strategy is to make this race between him and Bob Taft [the wildly unpopular outgoing GOP governor]; between him and the war in Iraq; between him and George Bush. Anything but him and me."

Then Blackwell went on to claim -- even though most private statewide polls are reputedly in line with the Dispatch's lopsided numbers -- that Steeper's latest survey has him only 9 to 11 points behind. It is an iron law of politics that things are really bad when a candidate has to doggedly insist against evidence to the contrary that he is only 11 points behind.

Not too long ago, Republicans had a dream of confounding the racial contours of American politics by electing conservative African-Americans as the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania (former pro football great Lynn Swann, also trailing by double digits in most polls). Prejudice appears to have little to do with Blackwell's political problems, since as he proudly notes he soundly defeated his white primary challenger, Attorney General Jim Petro. Asked about Blackwell in an interview earlier this month, GOP national chairman Ken Mehlman said, "Voters want change in that state ... and Ken Blackwell, through his biography, his record of accomplishment and his platform, radiates change."

Strickland, who represents a sprawling Appalachian district that hugs Ohio's eastern border, comes into this race with two overwhelming advantages -- he is a Democrat in a state where the Republicans have become synonymous with corruption and, most of all, he is not Ken Blackwell. As Mike Curtin, the associate publisher of the Dispatch and an expert on Ohio politics, said, "I don't know when in modern Ohio history that we've elected someone as ideological as Ken Blackwell. Instead, we've elected dull, pragmatic governors."

Dull Ken Blackwell isn't. He combines an unswerving belief in free-market economic nostrums (leasing the Ohio Turnpike to private investors for 99 years is one of his centerpiece proposals) with a militant social conservatism. In our interview Blackwell enunciated the strongest possible antiabortion position. He said, "I am opposed to the intentional taking of a baby's life without any attempt to save it." That means no exceptions for the victims of rape or incest, even though Blackwell makes the glib and misleading claim that modern medical science means doctors today "are not faced with having to choose whether they're going to take the life of the baby to save the life of the mother."

But what makes Blackwell unusual among ideologues is that he has brought to the quotidian task of serving as Ohio's chief election official for the last eight years the thumb-on-the-scale partisanship of a Tom DeLay. Blackwell professed to see no inherent conflict during the 2004 election between simultaneously serving as secretary of state and co-chairman of Bush's Ohio campaign. As the arbiter of election rules, Blackwell issued a series of rulings that limited the use of provisional ballots, a tactic that undermined traditionally Democratic inner-city voters. At one point, until he finally rescinded it, Blackwell tried to maintain the absurd position that only voter-registration forms on heavyweight 80-pound paper would be accepted. And this year, Blackwell has interpreted an ambiguously worded state statute so that everyone registering new voters theoretically risks a felony conviction if they give the forms to any outside group to be handed in.

Jennifer Brunner, a Democratic election lawyer and former county judge who is running for secretary of state, sniffed about Blackwell's conduct, "If you're going to umpire the game, you can't wear a jersey of one of the teams." During an interview in her law office, she spoke about how Blackwell's unabashed partisanship fostered conspiracy theories about the accuracy of the state's 2004 presidential returns. "What it did was to undermine people's trust in the process," she said. "So when you had a 70 percent turnout as you did in the 2004 presidential election -- and things went wrong as they were bound to with that turnout -- people started ascribing all kind of underhanded things ... because Blackwell set the tone that he was trying to sway the election."

Ted Strickland embodies a series of theories about how the Democrats can assemble 21st century electoral majorities. Strickland is, in a sense, a walking market test of Democratic branding, which is apt since Columbus is one of the leading consumer test markets in the nation. In pointed contrast to, say, John Kerry, Strickland is running as a pro-gun candidate, with unmistakable rural roots. He has no problems talking often and publicly about his religious faith and the liberal values that he derives from it. As Strickland, an ordained United Methodist minister, put it in an interview, "I am not going to cede ownership of, so to speak, the faith community to Ken Blackwell."

This explains why the Strickland campaign confounded political expectations earlier this month when it launched a radio ad campaign on Christian stations with the candidate delivering this untraditional Democratic message:

"In the Old Testament book of Micah, we are asked this question: 'What then is required of us?' And the answer: 'To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God.' Throughout the course of my life as a United Methodist minister, a teacher, a child-care administrator, psychologist, congressman and husband, I have tried to follow this biblical admonition."

During an hourlong interview Saturday morning in a crowded family restaurant just east of Columbus, the soft-spoken Strickland radiated passion when he began talking about how conservatives like Blackwell have hijacked religion. "I believe that much that is presented as Christian faith today borders on apostasy," he said. "Because they have taken the broad, wonderful message of the Christian faith and they have diminished it and narrowed it and made it into something that is an anemic reflection of what Jesus thought."

Strickland, who will turn 65 next month, projects a sense that the fires of the standard politician's ambition have banked a little. "I'm a little more mature," he conceded. "A little more thoughtful than I was a decade ago. I think this is a serious business. I am not a sound-bite candidate ... I want to be a substantive, thoughtful, problem-solving, unifying governor. I take this seriously and it is perhaps reflected in my demeanor."

Dressed in the standard political regalia of a dark suit and crisp white shirt, Strickland limits his flash to two oversize rings that he wears -- one that his wife made out of his original temporary congressional ID pin and the other his high-school graduation ring. Strickland is the kind of candidate who will ask a reporter, long after a discussion of his reputed blandness is over, "So, do you think I'm dull? I'm really not."

But in person Strickland may be invisible. Even though we sat at a circular center table at Paul's Restaurant, not a single voter wandered over to shake Strickland's hand or even seemed to notice the likely next governor of Ohio. When Strickland left the restaurant, I caught a man of retirement age asking his wife in puzzlement, "Who was that?"

Despite the poll numbers, there are prominent Ohio Democrats who worry that Strickland may be taking the bland Mister Rogers approach a bit too far. "He's up 10-15 points because no one knows who he is," said one Democratic critic. "Strickland has been pretty much unchallenged. He has no identity. He's had a free ride." Carlo LoParo, Blackwell's press secretary, makes a similar point with an added talking-point edge. "Strickland's first problem is that 70 percent of Ohioans don't know who he is," said LoParo. "And the second problem is that when they find out who he is, they will see that he doesn't share their values."

But tarring the affable Strickland with the standard Republican epithet of "liberal, liberal, liberal" requires a heavy investment of money. And even well-placed Republicans privately worry that the Dispatch poll may permanently kill Blackwell's fundraising potential, as all the follow-the-winner money gravitates to Strickland. True, an appropriately grateful Bush is coming in on Aug. 2 for a Blackwell fundraiser. Unless his poll numbers improve, however, that presidential swag may be the last major cash infusion Blackwell sees before November.

It may be premature to turn the lights out on the Blackwell campaign, especially since the Democrats have not won an Ohio gubernatorial race in two decades. As Strickland shrewdly put it, "I think there are two things that Ohio Democrats feel right now -- hope and concern. They feel hope that we can win. And I think they feel concern that the other side is so determined to hold onto power that there's going to be a hellacious fight and that we could lose it."

But for the moment, at least, Ohio voters seem ready to prove that, yes, it is possible for Republicans to go too far in their quest to un-separate church and state.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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