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Cincinnati Enquirer

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 care.

But southwest Ohio won't be a part of that decision.

That's 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.

"There's some 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.

Among 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."

Few races close

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.

"The 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."

The lack 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 eventual winner.

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 turf.

"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

The 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 districts.

"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 Delhi Township.

"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.

Jeff 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.)

With the 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.

One-party rule?

The 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."

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