GOP House members snug in
incumbency: In 3 area races, challengers almost invisible
By Carl Weiser
October 28, 2002
The House of Representatives is
balanced so evenly that it could tilt from Republican to Democratic
control this Election Day - potentially affecting what the federal
government does on everything from education to taxes to health
But southwest Ohio won't be a part of that decision.
because - like most Americans - the 1.9 million Ohioans living in
the 1st, 2nd, and 8th Districts live where one party's control of
the seat is virtually unassailable.
Thanks to the power of
incumbency, money, and the once-a-decade remapping of congressional
districts, the three Republican incumbents of Southwest Ohio have
only tightened their hold.
No one interviewed at Price Hill Chili
during a busy lunch hour, not even the few Democrats, could name the
Democrat running against local Rep. Steve Chabot. (It's Greg
Harris.) And almost no one seemed to mind that Mr. Chabot is
essentially guaranteed re-election.
"I want it that way," said
Bernie Kersker, 77, a retired Cincinnati policeman. "I'll vote for
him until I die."
"When I know Steve is running," said Sue Meagher,
50, of Covedale. "I don't even pay any attention to anyone else."
The story is the same at a VFW hall in New Richmond, where the name
of the Democrat challenging Rep. Rob Portman is a mystery to
Democrats - even though the same Democrat has run the past two
times, Charles Sanders. And no one objects to the fact that Mr.
Portman will be re-elected without a challenge.
things I can change, and some I can't. I'm not a Republican, but I
do like Rob Portman," said Diane Zimmerman of New Richmond.
Democrats, Republicans, blacks, and whites, support for Mr. Portman
is nearly universal: No one talks about the issues, only that Mr.
Portman sent a letter congratulating an uncle who turned 100, that
he appeared at a village meeting one Saturday and answered every
question, and that he is helping make Clermont County a major
Underground Railroad tourism site.
"I'm not sure at this basic
level it matters whether someone is a Republican or Democrat," said
Lorrie Erland, 48, a self-described Democrat who owns the Kristle
Kitchen in New Richmond. "It's just if the person has an interest in
the community. Rob Portman seems OK, as far as politicians go."
Only about 40 races around the country are considered
competitive. Because the House has 435 congressional districts, that
means only about 1 in 10 Americans have a real say in who will
control the House.
Voters in northern Kentucky and southeastern
Indiana will have some say in dictating who controls the House
because their districts feature Democratic incumbents considered in
some danger - Kentucky Rep. Ken Lucas and Indiana Rep. Baron Hill.
But voters represented by the three conservative southwest Ohio
Republicans - Mr. Chabot, Mr. Portman, and Rep. John Boehner - live
in areas that national Democrats have written off. Their districts
cover Hamilton, Butler, Clermont and southern Warren counties.
kind of democratic responsiveness of our system is undercut by
having congressmen who are congressmen for basically as long as they
want to be," said Robert Richie, executive director of the Center
for Voting and Democracy. The nonpartisan Maryland-based group is
pushing for more competitive races. "Unless they do something
completely outrageous, they're likely just to be there."
of real races, in southwest Ohio and most other districts, is
happening for three main reasons:
Incumbency. In the past two
elections, 98.5 percent of House incumbents were re-elected. Only
once since 1954 has the incumbent re-election rate dropped below 90
percent. The free publicity in the press, name recognition and
exposure that comes from being a member is almost impossible for a
challenger to overcome.
Money. Incumbents can vastly out-raise
challengers. In Southwest Ohio, Republican incumbents have 10 times
as much money as their challengers. Special-interest groups or
anyone with an interest in what's happening in Congress know that
incumbents are almost guaranteed re-election, so they invest in the
Redistricting. Because Republicans controlled the
state legislature, they redrew local congressional districts to help
Republicans. Mr. Chabot's district, once considered a potentially
Democratic seat, was expanded west and north into more-Republican
"My hat is off to the Republicans," said redistricting expert
Steve Fought, legislative director for Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the Toledo
Democrat who represents a district along Lake Erie. "They did a
masterful job on redistricting."
Winning recipe: hard work
Republican incumbents make no apologies for having easy races. They
say they win because they work hard, come home every weekend, march
in the local parades, get bills passed, and represent their
"It's not for lack of money or resources that no one has
been able to beat me in the past," said Mr. Chabot, who survived two
elections in which Democrats put him on their hit list: the 1996
race against Mark Longabaugh and the 1998 race against former
Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls.
"I think it's been a matter of I'm
fairly representative of the district and my constituency," he said.
And voters, at least at Price Hill Chili, bear out that contention.
"He's a Western Hills conservative," said Mark Ramstetter, 36, of
"The West Side is known for being pro-life," as is
Mr. Chabot, said Terry McCarthy, 46, of Western Hills. "For West
Siders, that's kind of a big thing."
But some Democrats feel
disenfranchised living in such Republican districts.
Hardenbrook had been represented by a Democrat, Rep. Tony Hall,
until the new map put him in Mr. Boehner's district.
"I was a nice,
quiet, closet Democrat," said Mr. Hardenbrook, 43, of East Dayton.
But he was so angry at what he saw as Mr. Boehner's "right wing
extremism" that he quit his job running a home for the disabled to
run against Mr. Boehner.
Cincinnati's 142,000 black residents feel
especially disenfranchised, said state Sen. Mark Mallory, a Democrat
who lives in Mr. Chabot's district.
"His voting record on issues of
importance to African-Americans is really terrible," said Mr.
Mallory, who cited Mr. Chabot's opposition to affirmative action and
a vote against a bill that included money for the National
Underground Railroad Freedom Center. (Mr. Chabot said he supports
the center, but opposed the bill's overall price tag.)
district redrawn to take in part of Butler County and western
Hamilton County, an African-American Democrat has virtually no
chance of ever winning, Mr. Mallory said.
problem with uncompetitive races is that issues don't get debated,
said Mr. Harris, the Democrat running against Mr. Chabot. It
undermines the whole point of elections.
"They're not voting based
on competing ideas," Mr. Harris said. "I hope it doesn't sound
arrogant of me, but I feel issue by issue, my views are more
mainstream than his are."
Mr. Harris has no paid staff, his
campaign office is a bedroom in his house and his campaign signs are
stored on his front porch.
"We're being outspent 50 to 1. If he
wanted to, he could outspend us 100 to 1," Mr. Harris said.
"Probably two-thirds of the people don't even know Chabot has a
Democratic opponent," Mr. Harris said. "To run a race without
resources, it's just - aaaaggghh."