Polls: Taft is least popular Ohio governor ever

Adam Milasincic

Approval level hits new lows locally, statewide

Gov. Bob Taft, R-Ohio, carried Portage County in his re-election bid three years ago, but it could be difficult to find anyone left here – or elsewhere in Ohio – who would admit voting for him.

Three volunteers at the Portage County Republican Headquarters in Ravenna declined to comment on Taft in separate phone inquiries last week.

The embattled governor’s approval rating has dipped to an all-time low of 15 percent, according to a Columbus Dispatch poll released Oct. 2. That makes Taft the least popular Ohio governor in the history of modern polling, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill online database spanning 47 years.

“I don’t think it can go any lower,” said State Rep. Kathleen Chandler, D-Kent.

Taft remains under fire for his connections to Thomas Noe, a Toledo coin dealer and Republican fundraiser whose firm allegedly lost or stole some $12 million in state investments. Taft was convicted on four misdemeanor charges in August for failing to report several free golf outings on his financial disclosure statements, including some paid for by Noe.

“It’s really time for a change. We’ve had one party in power so long, there’s an arrogance,” Chandler said.

Chandler declined to join some Ohio Democrats in calling for Taft’s immediate resignation, and said she prefers to wait for the outcome of a continuing criminal probe surrounding the mismanaged state funds. Without resignation, Taft’s term would expire in January 2007.

“As the investigation goes on and results come out, I think it will get worse. I suspect we’ve only seen a small part of the problem,” Chandler said.

Taft’s woes began just months after his 58 percent re-election win in 2002. His approval rating took its first hit when he signed a 6-cent gas tax increase in March 2003. A sales tax expansion later that year, coupled with a 70-cent cigarette tax increase in June, depleted Taft’s support even further.

The governor’s poll numbers began to free fall this spring when the Toledo Blade published the first accounts of investments in a rare coin fund by the Ohio Bureau of Worker’s Compensation. A subsequent audit found the bureau had lost over $225 million in unrelated investments, leading to the resignation of its director in May.

The extent of Taft’s unpopularity sparked laughter from one Kent State student.

“Those are the worst poll numbers I’ve ever heard,” said Chris Kok, senior international relations major. “I’m from Michigan, but everything I’ve heard about Taft is bad. I’ve heard he’s corrupt and generally leading the state in the wrong direction.”

While the Noe scandal has weighed most heavily on Taft’s approval rating, he also faces criticism on bread-and-butter issues.

“I think with the economy and the fact Ohio is behind the nation when it comes to jobs, and the fact we’re not supporting K-12 education as we should, and higher education costs going up, and adding to that there’s a pay to play culture (in Columbus), people are generally a little discontented,” Chandler said.

Taft’s reduced stature will not necessarily slow regular business in Columbus during the remaining 15 months of his term, according to Pat Kerrigan, a political science graduate student who is assistant director of the Columbus Program in Intergovernmental Affairs.

“This governor in the past has not really taken a large initiative in getting measures passed, even before his troubles,” Kerrigan said. “There’s a Republican majority in both houses, so they can still push their agenda through. It’s more of a sad commentary on the ethics in our state.”

Many prominent Republicans have distanced themselves from Taft since the coin scandal broke. Two GOP gubernatorial candidates, Attorney General Jim Petro and State Auditor Betty Montgomery, are helping to investigate Taft and the Bureau of Worker’s Compensation. Another, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, has repeatedly sparred with Taft and led opposition to the governor’s 2003 tax increase.

Last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested Taft should resign during comments at a Youngstown rally for the re-election campaign of Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. McCain’s comments prompted one national commentator to draw parallels to Taft’s famous ancestor, former President William Howard Taft. Writing in The Hotline, analyst Chuck Todd said:

“McCain v. Bob Taft resembles another Republican that a guy named Taft once feuded with: Teddy Roosevelt. McCain calls Teddy R. his political hero. Could the ghost of Teddy (using McCain) once again be haunting a Taft?”

Contact news correspondent Adam Milasincic at [email protected].