Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ohio 2: A Nightmare of a Congressional Race

By Stuart Rothenberg

Every so often, I come across a great House race, such as the 2000 Michigan open-seat race where voters were lucky enough to be able to choose between Mike Rogers (R) and Diane Byrum (D). Those voters couldn’t lose, since both candidates clearly deserved to be in Congress. (Rogers won that race by 111 votes out of almost 300,000 cast.)

This year, I stumbled across the opposite of that Michigan race. The contest in Ohio’s 2nd district may well be the worst Congressional contest I’ve ever witnessed.

The southern Ohio district gave George W. Bush 64 percent of the vote in 2004 and 63 percent four years earlier. It’s a conservative bastion.

If you are a Republican and not under indictment, you shouldn’t have a hard time holding the district. Yet the district’s Congresswoman, Rep. Jean Schmidt, barely won re-election last time and again is in a fight for her political life.

Schmidt, who was then a former state legislator, was the surprise winner of an 11-candidate Republican primary to fill the seat left open when Republican Rob Portman became the Bush administration’s trade envoy in 2005. She won that primary with just 31 percent, and went on to squeak out a win in the special election by just 4 points.

The Republican got off on the wrong foot in Washington, D.C., when, shortly after her election, she called Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) a coward. She subsequently apologized, but the damage was done.

In 2006, Schmidt narrowly beat former Rep. Bob McEwen (R) by 5 points in the primary. McEwen had finished second to Schmidt in the special primary following Portman’s resignation. Then she won the general election by only 1 point. This year, she faces a primary challenge from state Rep. Tom Brinkman, who finished third in the special 2005 primary.

I don’t know Schmidt, so I can’t speak about her. But lots of Republicans don’t seem to like her. She had two close calls last time, and her own January 2008 poll shows her barely cracking 50 percent among GOP voters.

Brinkman filed with the Federal Election Commission on Dec. 19 and announced his candidacy officially on Jan. 3, the day before the filing deadline.

Why did he wait so late to decide on running? A Brinkman supporter told my colleague, Nathan Gonzales, that the legislator made the decision to run at the end of the year because “no one was stepping up to take on the incumbent.”

In fact, while Brinkman was sitting on his hands, former Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich (R) filed with the FEC in May and was actively raising money and running against Schmidt.

In the candidates’ Sept. 30 FEC report, Heimlich showed that he had raised more money than the Congresswoman and had twice as much on hand as she did. As of Dec. 31, he had $266,000 in the bank to Schmidt’s $125,000. Moreover, Schmidt’s own poll showed her leading Heimlich by only 52 percent to 31 percent, with Brinkman trailing badly at 9 percent.

Veteran Ohio politicians say Brinkman doesn’t raise much money and doesn’t run good campaigns. The one thing he’s done this cycle is drive a credible primary challenger to Schmidt out of the primary.

Given the weakness of Schmidt and Brinkman, you’d think that the seat might simply fall into the Democratic nominee’s lap. And it might, even if Democrats once again nominate Victoria Wulsin. (Party switcher Steve Black is also in the Democratic race.)

Wulsin, a physician with a specialty in epidemiology, has an impressive résumé including an M.D. from Case Western and a doctorate in public health from Harvard.

But for a candidate running for the third time, Wulsin is, to put it mildly, scattered in her thinking. For example, she’s an anti-war candidate who says that she isn’t sure how she would have voted on the supplemental spending bill that has funded the war.

Wulsin ran a TV spot last month in which she pledged, “As your Representative, I will refuse Congressional health care until Congress does its job and passes affordable health care for all.”

Sounds like quite a sacrifice, doesn’t it? Of course, it isn’t, since Wulsin is covered under her husband’s “gold-plated” health care plan. When I asked her about this, she talked about the symbolism of her stand and the fact that Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) made the same pledge previously.

Then, toward the end of the interview, with half a dozen other reporters present, Wulsin referred to her son as “a nice liberal, like his mother.” Hmmm.

When asked about that comment, Wulsin went through a lengthy verbal contortion to try to explain that she really is both conservative and liberal. “What I mean by [liberal],” said the pro-abortion rights Democrat at one point, “is that I want change.”

But what, asked a reporter, did she mean when she said that she was conservative on family issues? “I think marriage is great. I think motherhood and fatherhood is great,” she explained.

What about gay marriage? “I don’t think that the federal government should tell any church what to do or who to marry. I’m all for equal rights,” said Wulsin, digging herself deeper.

Anyway, Wulsin might well get elected to Congress. But if she does, it’s only because of Schmidt. And Schmidt might win. But if she does, it’s only because the district is so Republican. And Brinkman might win. But if he does, it’s only because of Schmidt.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 4, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.