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How Ohio Views Its Maverick GOP Senators

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

US senators return to work here in Washington today and their vacation is definitely over. They face two controversies, the use of filibusters to block judicial nominees and the stalled nomination of John Bolton to be UN ambassador. On each of these issues, two Republicans from the state of Ohio will play important roles. Both have defied the White House and their party. Mike DeWine is one of them. He helped derail a showdown vote on filibusters. The other one is George Voinovich, the only Senate Republican calling for the defeat of John Bolton. NPR's David Welna went to southwestern Ohio to hear how the senators' actions are playing in a conservative region of their state.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Senator George Voinovich has made only a few public appearances while back in Ohio. One is a morning meeting at Hamilton County's regional Emergency Management Center in Cincinnati.

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Ohio): Yes, sir, Michael. Good to see you again. What had happened to your warrant, Michael?

WELNA: There's plenty of backslapping and joshing as this 69-year-old one-time mayor of Cleveland and governor of Ohio reconnects with local officials. As a member of the committee overseeing homeland security, Voinovich has come to hear concerns about chemical security. His stubborn and sometimes emotional opposition to John Bolton's nomination doesn't come up during their meeting, but just outside the door, County Commission President Phil Heimlich says the senator's defiance is on the minds of many of his fellow Ohio Republicans.

Mr. PHIL HEIMLICH (President, County Commission): Senator Voinovich has always been his own man and has never been somebody who always toed the party line. So I don't think it surprised people but I think there are a lot of people upset about it.

WELNA: And why is that?

Mr. HEIMLICH: Well, this is very much George Bush country down here. This was the part of Ohio that helped him win Ohio and, therefore, helped him win the presidency.

WELNA: It was in a neighboring county that President Bush ended his campaign last fall on election eve, and Voinovich campaigned right alongside him to win another six-year term in the Senate. As he heads for his car, Voinovich insists his outspoken opposition to Bolton has not marred his relationship with Mr. Bush.

Sen. VOINOVICH: The president and I are very close friends. I've known him since he's been a governor. He respects me. I respect him. He knows I have a difference of opinion. He knows that when I have a difference of opinion, leaning on me is the last thing that anybody wants to do.

WELNA: Do you have much support from people here, fellow Republicans, for what you're doing?

Sen. VOINOVICH: Do I have support? I'm getting a lot of complaints from Republicans. They want me to support the president. Of course, they do. You know, `Support the president, George,' and I have to explain to them that under the Constitution, the Senate has the issue of advise and consent.

WELNA: Ohio's other senator is embroiled in a separate issue of advise and consent. Mike DeWine joined six GOP colleagues last month in signing a leadership-defying pact with seven Democrats. In it, he vowed to oppose eliminating judicial filibusters so long as Democrats use them only in extraordinary circumstances. All last week, ads like this one, created and paid for by the conservative Family Research Council, excoriated DeWine on Ohio radio stations.

(Soundbite from ad)

Unidentified Woman: Ohio families want judges who respect the Constitution and American values. Tell Senator DeWine you don't like his back-room deal. Call him today at (513) 7...

WELNA: Speaking from his home in Washington where one of his eight children has a high-school graduation, DeWine says he's not heard any of these ads but he feels good, he says, about what constituents said to him in Ohio earlier last week.

Senator MIKE DeWINE (Ohio): I've been really kind of surprised by the number of people who just kind of walked up to me--they're coming out of church or on the street, the grocery store in Ohio or somewhere, and said, `You know, hey, thank you. I think you did the right thing on this and this is really what should have happened and maybe you guys can move on and quite squabbling in Congress and get some things done.'

WELNA: East of Cincinnati lies Anderson Township. It gave President Bush 71 percent of its votes last fall. A large conference room at a local medical center is packed with Republicans for a candidate debate. Waiting for that debate to begin, 50-year-old computer scientist Randy Shankle(ph) says he's puzzled by Voinovich's opposition to Bolton. He's more understanding, though, of DeWine's efforts to avert a showdown over judicial filibusters.

Mr. RANDY SHANKLE (Computer Scientist): My take on DeWine is he was trying to simply get the process back on track. We don't really have that much of a problem with that.

WELNA: But 50-year-old Bonnie Rack(ph) says DeWine, who's up for re-election next year, is thwarting the president.

Ms. BONNIE RACK: I mean, I hate to say this but I'm not happy with that. Yeah.

WELNA: Will you vote for DeWine next year?

Ms. RACK: No. I should say let's see who his opposition is.

WELNA: But before deciding on whether to re-elect Mike DeWine, these conservatives could take out their anger on his son, Pat. He's one of 11 Republicans here competing in a messy primary next week to fill a vacant congressional seat. As he wraps up his opening statement at the Republican gathering, Pat DeWine gets a decidedly mixed response.

Mr. PAT DeWINE: Unlike anyone else in this race, I have a proven conservative record, one cutting spending and eliminating government waste. Thank you.

Unidentified Man: Boo. Boo.

(Soundbite of applause)

WELNA: In part, the hostility this conservative crowd shows toward the younger DeWine comes from his having left his wife and three children to live with another woman, but there's also considerable resentment over his father's part in the Senate deal on judicial filibusters, even though Pat DeWine has said he would not have done what his father did. John Williams is with the local County Board of Elections.

Mr. JOHN WILLIAMS: The repercussion in this district is certainly a very conservative area, and when people go against the president in regard to his judicial nominations, it's not taken well in southern Ohio. So...

WELNA: Do you think this can hurt Pat DeWine?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Certainly that potential I think is evident in this room tonight.

WELNA: In downtown Cincinnati, some office workers having lunch outdoors at Fountain Square are also dismayed by Senator DeWine's defiance of the GOP leadership. Joe Murphy, a 40-year-old systems analyst and lifelong Republican, calls DeWine disloyal to his party.

Mr. JOE MURPHY (Systems Analyst): I was very surprised and upset. I think that he made a mistake with Ohio voters, especially people who supported him in the last election.

WELNA: As for Voinovich, Murphy calls him a poster child for the Democrats. But public transit manager Jay Unline(ph), another registered Republican, says John Bolton should be stopped.

Mr. JAY UNLINE (Public Transit Manager): I agree with Voinovich because I think that this man's clearly not for this job.

WELNA: That sentiment appears to be widely shared. David Wells is editorial page editor for The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Mr. DAVID WELLS (Editorial Page Editor, The Cincinnati Enquirer): We've had a number of letters from people saying, `Well, he's betraying the cause or he's betraying the president,' like that, but I think still people are saying, `Ah, on balance, George is still our guy.'

WELNA: And Cincinnati political consultant David Little, who works for Democrats, says both Voinovich and DeWine are smart making shows of independence in this swing state.

Mr. DAVID LITTLE (Political Consultant): I believe that they pacify editorial boards and mainstream Ohioans, including the broad swath of Democrats who may not vote for them but they will not work hard to defeat them.

WELNA: Safely re-elected Voinovich, Little says, has nothing to worry about. DeWine, too, appears safe despite attacks from the right. He still has no credible challenger for his re-election bid next year, at least not for now. David Welna, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.