By Debra Jasper
Columbus Enquirer Bureau
COLUMBUS - Gov. Bob Taft led what he called an "elephant stampede" of Republican candidates to crush their Democratic opponents and maintain a GOP lock on Ohio government.
Mr. Taft defeated Democrat Tim Hagan by an extraordinary 20 percentage points to win a second term. Mr. Taft's resounding win also made history because his running mate, Jennette Bradley of Columbus, will be the nation's first black female lieutenant governor.
The governor's re-election victory and wins by other GOP officeholders - Joe Deters, Betty Montgomery, Jim Petro and Ken Blackwell - was the third consecutive time Republicans have swept statewide nonjudicial offices in Ohio.
Their wins were made sweeter by victories by Evelyn L. Stratton and Maureen O'Connor, two Republicans elected to the Ohio Supreme Court who are expected to swing the court ideologically toward conservatives and in favor of business.
"I'm very proud to have led the most diverse ticket in the history of our state,'' Mr. Taft yelled as he addressed a GOP crowd late Tuesday.
"It was a tough year to run as an incumbent,'' Mr. Taft said. "We had a tough state budget, we had a national recession, we had terrorism and we had the threat of war.
"But because we ran on our record, we had a great campaign team and, all of you, tonight we won a decisive victory."
Mr. Taft promised as governor to continue to improve schools and help lower the cost of prescription drugs for seniors.
"Now we have an opportunity to make Ohio better and stronger in the days ahead," he said.
In Cleveland, Mr. Hagan conceded, saying in an emotional speech that Democrats must never stop fighting for working men and women, gays and lesbians, minorities and others.
"We have a special responsibility to the poor and the powerless," he said. "The battle is lost for the moment but we shall live to fight another day. We are bloody but unbowed."
Earlier this week, in response to polls showing Mr. Taft with a double-digit lead, Mr. Hagan said the governor had pulled ahead because he sold out to special interests and raised enough cash to dominate the airwaves.
Mr. Taft spent about $9 million on a television ad campaign that praised his work as governor. One ad criticized Mr. Hagan for, among other things, being an "unabashed liberal" who opposes the death penalty.
Mr. Hagan, who raised only $1 million for the race, never ran his own television ads, relying instead on an Internet campaign that never reached most Ohio voters.
Denny White, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said Mr. Hagan and other Democrats just couldn't compete in a year when Republicans spent more than $11 for every dollar spent by Democrats.
"Taft bought the governorship," Mr. White said. "Our statewide candidates worked hard, but the money Bob Taft, and (Republican Party Chairman) Bob Bennett raised with their money-laundering machine made it tough."
Mr. White, who was elected chairman last summer, said such lopsided races "will never happen again under my watch. I'll start raising money tomorrow."
Republican House Speaker Larry Householder, one of the GOP's top fund-raisers, said the difference between Democrats and Republicans is "we had the resources to get our message out."
Raising money, he added, is "everything."
Political experts said television advertising made a difference in the Republican sweep of statewide offices.
"Republicans started out way ahead. They owned the state already, had all their incumbents in office and raised the money they needed," said Robert Adams, associate professor of political science at Wright State University. "Democrats just don't have the money to be competitive."
Until Tuesday, no political party had monopolized nonjudicial offices for more than 10 years, or controlled state offices, as well as the Ohio General Assembly, for more than eight years. The Republicans swept statewide nonjudicial offices in 1994, 1998 and this year.
The biggest problem for Republicans now, said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, is that they have set themselves up for a vicious battle for governor in 2006.
State Auditor Petro, who was elected Tuesday to the Attorney General's Office, has made no secret of his desire to run for governor in four years. Attorney General Betty Montgomery, who was just elected state auditor in a seat-swapping move, also has her eye on the office.
Secretary of State Blackwell, who was re-elected Tuesday, has long coveted the governor's post. And Mr. Householder has also expressed interest in the seat.
"There will be a pretty serious fight in 2006," Mr. Green said. "It will likely get ugly."
Mr. Green said the GOP is one of the strongest organizations in the country.
"They are very, very effective," he said. "They raise a lot of money because they have a good organization and they've managed to keep some of the most controversial issues off the table."
In the governor's race, even Mr. Hagan's supporters said they weren't surprised he lost.
John Douglas, 39, of Bedford stood out in the rain all day urging people to vote the Democratic ticket, even though he said he knew Mr. Hagan was the underdog.
Mr. Taft's supporters, meanwhile, happily mingled in the Hyatt hotel ballroom, cheering as Republican after Republican were announced winners.
"Our state tends to be conservative overall. I think that's why so many people voted for Taft," said Brad McCoy, 20, a student majoring in international business at Capital University in Columbus.
"I just think people are tired of Democrats."
Dean Ringle, 45, a Franklin County engineer, said Ohioans understand that the sagging economy is a national problem, not just a problem in Ohio.
"Taft's done well taking us through tough economic times and 9-11," he said.
Reporter Nathan Leaf contributed. E-mail email@example.com
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