Voters are very angry this year, of course, and candidates know it. So do pollsters, including the Pew Research Center, which published a 138-page poll this week saying that, well, voters are very angry. But here's the funny thing about anger: Much like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder.
Which brings me to Ohio, the battleground state where anger is driving the marquee races for Senate, House and governor. In conversations with candidates running in those contests, very different versions of that anger have emerged.
Republicans have embraced a curious strategy of uniting behind candidates who played roles in their recent demise.
Rob Portman, the likely GOP Senate nominee, told me, not surprisingly, that the anger he hears about is aimed squarely at the party in power. "There is frustration, some people are angry, no doubt about it," said Portman, a former congressman who also served as George W. Bush's budget director and trade representative. "They just don't see things getting better. And they see Democrats focused on everything other than jobs. The health care debate wasn't what they were focused on."
Portman must be talking to different Ohioans than Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, the Democratic frontrunner. Or perhaps he's listening to them differently.
"There's a general feeling that Washington is broken because partisanship and obstructionism and scoring political points have become more important than getting results," Fisher told me, laying the blame for all three transgressions on... Republicans. "There's also an increasing understanding that we're in this economic mess because of eight long years of misguided trade, economic and regulatory policies under George W. Bush that brought us the deepest recession most of us have ever seen."
In case his subtle jab at Portman went unnoticed, Fisher pressed on. "It is my intention to make sure the people of Ohio remember how we got into this economic ditch. We need to remember how we got here," he said. "Rob Portman was not a casual passerby. He was one of the chief architects of the trade and economic policies that brought us this recession."
Before he can face Portman, however, Fisher must survive an intraparty battle with Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner (D), whose prospects in the May 4 primary rest on motivating the liberal base that turned out strongly for Barack Obama in 2008. Perhaps not coincidentally, Brunner said the anger she feels in Ohio is aimed at Democrats who haven't worked hard enough to advance Obama's agenda. "It's fascinating," she said recently. "I'm seeing anger on the parts of Democrats at other Democrats who didn't step up on health care" and other issues.
Republicans in Ohio, meanwhile, speak confidently of riding the wave of "change" to reverse a tide that has been washing them away since 2006. With that in mind, however, they have embraced a curious strategy of uniting behind candidates who played roles in their recent demise. In addition to Portman, former Sen. Mike DeWine, who was turned out of office in 2006, is running for attorney general. Former Rep. John Kasich, who recently left his job as a Lehman Brothers managing director in Columbus, is running for governor. And former Rep. Steve Chabot is running for his old seat.
But Kasich said times have changed, and so have Republicans. "Republicans were very concerned, and I was one of them, that Republicans had lost their way and had lost their principles. Whenever a party forgets its principles for political expediency, it gets punished. And they got punished," he said. "And now they really believe they need to stand up and fight for this."
For his part, Gov. Ted Strickland (D) also sees voter anger -- among Republicans. "It's going to be a gully washer of a campaign," he told local Democrats recently at a fundraiser in Dayton. "[Republicans] are out of power. They have lost power and influence, and they don't like it a bit."
On that point, Republicans don't disagree.
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