By Michael Gerson
WASHINGTON -- While it is great, tempting fun to write about tea party excess -- when, since Cotton Mather was young, has witchcraft been so relevant to the national debate? -- the real political story lies elsewhere.
The last few weeks have seen Democratic problems solidify across the country, in ways the Not-So-Great Communicator has been powerless to prevent. The bottom is dropping out of polls for Democratic candidates in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, where battlegrounds threaten to become routs. Senate races in bluish places from Wisconsin to Connecticut to West Virginia are suddenly within Republican reach. Once-shining Democratic Senate prospects such as Brad Ellsworth in Indiana have gone dark on television, as party money has fled to more realistic races.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the trend is Ohio, where I caught up by phone with Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman riding his campaign RV to an event in Youngstown. "It feels pretty good," he said, with an understatement typical of his mild manner. "When I first got in this race, everything was different. In our first poll, in February of last year, we were down 15 points." A Quinnipiac poll last week had Portman up by 20.
Just two years ago, both Democrats and Republicans suspected that Ohio was becoming another Illinois -- a realigned Democratic stronghold. Ohio independents had become alienated from Republicans over both spending and ethics. Democrats took control of key state government offices and added a million registered voters. Barack Obama won the state handily in 2008. Even in the spring of this year, Ohio lagged behind national Republican momentum, with Portman and his Democratic opponent, Lee Fisher, locked in a tight race.
But Republican gains are now greater in Ohio than elsewhere in the country. The Quinnipiac poll produced the single-most startling figure of the midterm election so far: 65 percent of Ohio's likely independent voters now disapprove of Obama's job performance -- a 2-1 rejection. Obama has lost the center of the electorate in the center of America.
"Independent voters in Ohio always make a difference," said Portman. "They gave the administration a chance, and saw all their hopes disappointed. Obama campaigned with a centrist tone. Instead, they saw a sharp turn to the left. High deficits. Continued unemployment at 10 percent. A stimulus package that not only didn't work, it didn't work and spent too much."
At the same time that Democrats have massively disappointed Ohio independents, they have provoked Republican intensity. In one poll, 75 percent of Ohio Republicans described themselves as "certain" to vote, compared to 52 percent of Democrats. Portman -- a mainstream conservative -- reports that the Ohio tea party movement has been "very helpful" in his Senate bid. Outside a few places such as Delaware and Alaska, Republicans and tea party activists seem to be getting along nicely.
Portman also argues that the issues are breaking against Democrats, especially health care. "I've done 70 plant tours," he told me. "It is the first issue people bring up to me. They know their premiums are going up. New mandates and new costs are creating uncertainty. Support for the health care law in Ohio was initially above the national numbers. Now it is below. There is a general sense that it makes it harder to hire."
So, in Ohio, Republicans have the advantage on the three I's -- independents, intensity and issues. Add to this, as Portman has done, a strong grass-roots campaign organization, and a wonky, forward-looking emphasis on employment, energy and health care proposals, and there are all the makings of a Republican wave.
Ohio, recently the symbol of Democratic realignment, has become the graveyard of Democratic campaign themes. Portman -- who was President George W. Bush's trade representative and budget director -- was thought vulnerable to attacks on the Bush era. But this Democratic argument appealed mainly to the already converted. And it was complicated by a development some did not expect. A poll in late August found that Ohio voters, by a 50-42 margin, would rather have Bush in the White House than Obama.
As media attention has been irresistibly attracted to Christine O'Donnell's aura of oddness, the main show of American politics is obscured. Ohio's Democratic candidate for the Senate is now about twice as far behind Portman as O'Donnell is behind her Democratic opponent in Delaware, Chris Coons.
Democratic prospects have broadly soured, and they will be difficult to uncurdle.