Times Reporter

May 4, 2006

Analysts say Ney's primary performance shows weakness

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON – Rep. Bob Ney’s tepid victory over a relatively unknown opponent in Ohio’s Republican primary Tuesday highlights his vulnerability heading into the fall election, political analysts say.

Ney, R-Heath, who is under investigation in a federal probe of corruption and bribery in Congress, won 68 percent of the vote against James Brodbelt Harris, a political novice who got 32 percent of the vote.

“It’s not disastrous, but it certainly isn’t all that encouraging either,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “There’s only one reason why they’re voting for somebody else when the opponent is little known – it’s because they’ve gotten turned off to Bob Ney.”

Although Harris, a financial analyst, conducted a spirited campaign over the Internet, he put little if any money into the race. Harris fell short of the $5,000 fundraising threshold required to file federal campaign finance reports.

Sabato said incumbents who get less than 70 percent in a primary are usually in trouble in the general election.

“Many of those Republicans who didn’t vote for him ... may well vote against him again in November,” he said.

Ney, who is seeking a seventh term, faces Democratic challenger Zack Space of Dover in the Nov. 7 election. Democrats have targeted the race as among their most promising opportunities to retake control of the House.

In a statement Tuesday night, Ney portrayed his win as a “resounding victory.” He predicted that the outcome of the fall campaign would hinge on the differences between him and Space, who he said would support higher taxes, gun control and more abortions.

Tuesday’s election marked the first time Ney has faced primary opposition since his first run for Congress in 1994.

Ney has denied any wrongdoing and he has not been charged in the federal probe. But some former federal prosecutors expect that he will be charged eventually since he has been identified in plea agreements as a lawmaker who did favors for convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for a lavish golf trip to Scotland, campaign contributions and other things of value.

Several analysts agreed with Sabato that Ney’s margin of victory was weak.

“If you start seeing his (Ney’s) opponent getting 25, 30, 35 percent of the vote, that’s not a good sign,” said Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University. “If his opponent gets a decent share that might suggest some dissatisfaction among rank-and-file Republicans.”

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, said the results confirmed his view that Ney is one of the weakest incumbents in the nation.

“I see it as a confirmation of the danger that he’s facing and another indication that should make ... national Republican strategists very, very worried,” he said.

Amy Walter, a congressional analyst for The Cook Political Report who has put Ney’s race into the toss-up category, said the bigger problem for the congressman is “there are more unanswered questions than not” in the federal probe.

In a post-primary memo, Ney spokesman Brian Walsh argued Ney’s margin of victory “was all the more remarkable considering that (his) campaign spent only a modest amount of money on the primary campaign and did not run a single radio or television advertisement, instead choosing to conserve the vast bulk of its campaign war-chest for the general election.”

Analysts pointed out that Ney did not do much better than Rep. Tom DeLay, the former Republican majority leader who dropped his bid for re-election in Texas. DeLay, who is under indictment on campaign finance charges in Texas, won 62 percent of the vote against three opponents in a March primary.

Elsewhere around the state, veteran Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, surprised observers by collecting just 58 percent of the vote against his primary challenger, Ashland County Commissioner Matt Miller.

Analysts said Regula is in less peril than Ney because he is not implicated in a scandal and faces a political novice in the general election.

In Ney’s GOP-leaning district, almost as many Democrats came out to vote as Republicans – raising another concern for Ney.

Turnout for the four-way Democratic primary totaled 46,682, a few thousand votes short of the 49,940 Republicans who voted.

“It suggests to me that Republican turnout in Ney’s district was depressed,” Rothenberg said. “That suggests that Republicans weren’t enthusiastic.”