The Magazine

A Faltering Big Red Machine

Republicans may lose their hold on Ohio's second district.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By DAVID WOLFFORD
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Cincinnati

Ohio's second congressional district is up for grabs. A Republican stronghold for over 30 years, it stretches from Cincinnati's east side, up the Ohio River to Portsmouth. Rob Portman won it handily from 1993 through 2004, usually breaking 70 percent. But in 2005, Portman left the House of Representatives to serve in President Bush's cabinet, and 11 Republicans eager to represent OH-2 leaped into a special primary. Jean Schmidt, a social conservative and past state representative, beat 10 male contenders. That meant the hard fight was over, or so she thought.

Today the district is no longer safe. Schmidt barely won her two general elections--with 51.6 percent and 50.5 percent respectively. This November, Democrat Victoria Wulsin, a physician from the affluent Cincinnati suburb of Indian Hill, will challenge Schmidt for the second time.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg concluded earlier this year that OH-2 "may well be the worst congressional contest I've ever witnessed." As Election Day nears, he may drop the qualification.

Fairly or not, Rep. Schmidt soon earned a reputation for her stern manner. She stands 5′2″, with piercing eyes and hair tightly pulled back. Her fierce work ethic, intense persona, and sharp off-the-cuff comments have caused some to dub her "Mean Jean." Within three months of being sworn in, she ridiculed Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) on the House floor as she spoke against his resolution to redeploy U.S. troops from Iraq. Allegedly quoting a Marine from her district, Schmidt said to Murtha, "Cowards cut and run, Marines never do." The House erupted in hisses and boos. Murtha got scant support on his resolution, but doubtless more collegial support than Schmidt after the rookie representative unduly attacked the decorated Marine. Saturday Night Live parodied Schmidt in her trademark red, white, and blue as this became the gaffe that defined her.

If only it had been her last. She downplayed the revelations of inadequate provision for wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, expressed openness to an unpopular nuclear waste site in her district, and has been under fire for misrepresenting a college degree.

Schmidt's challenger--who has an M.D. from Case Western Reserve and a doctorate from Harvard School of Public Health, has worked in public health management, and founded a charity combatting AIDS in Kenya--narrowly lost to Schmidt in 2006, taking 49.39 percent of the vote. But rather than running on her merits, Wulsin has chosen to run against Schmidt's mistakes. "Tired of the Schmidt!" she announced at one of her early press conferences. Her campaign committee is sponsoring a website, EmbarassedbySchmidt.com, that exposes the congresswoman's missteps. When asked how Wulsin differed from Schmidt, her spokesperson was quick to laud her as "more than an SNL skit."

The wild card in this race will be independent David Krikorian, a Cincinnati entrepreneur of Armenian background with expertise in economics. He will have raised about $200,000 before the race is done, has five paid campaign staffers, and was the first candidate to go on television. He's received the endorsement of the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police. His own campaign's poll of Democratic and Republican primary voters showed Krikorian at 19 percent. His "Had Enough?" strategy includes refusing PAC money.

The outlook for Election Day is uncertain. A recent SurveyUSA poll commissioned by Roll Call shows Schmidt and Wulsin in a 48 to 40 percent split, with 10 percent declaring they'd vote for somebody else. But one thing is plain: The voters are not keen on either nominee. More look unfavorably upon them than favorably (Schmidt, 40 percent unfavorable to 35 percent favorable, Wulsin, 36 percent to 28 percent).

All three candidates appeared in a televised debate on October 6. Wulsin announced that she would "tell the truth" as a representative, subtly calling Schmidt's ethics into question, while Krikorian tried to capitalize on the public's disdain for Schmidt's vote in favor of the second attempt in the $700 billion rescue. Opined Krikorian, who knows the district, "Capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without Hell."

The "I'm better than Mean Jean" strategy may work. Some local Republicans question whether she's the best person to represent OH-2, given her public image and her past close races including two challenges in Republican primaries. But while Schmidt is despised on the left and not beloved by all in her party, she is an acquired taste. The Cincinnati Enquirer has endorsed Schmidt on the eve of her past congressional elections, even while acknowledging her "tendency to step in it." Anyone who has met her sees her determination and passion for families.

"Dynamite comes in small packages," Terry Johnson, the Scioto County GOP chairman, says of Schmidt. The county party endorsed her in the primary. "She's our congresswoman. She's a beacon of conservative values. She's paid a lot of attention to us as a representative, and we really appreciate that," Johnson adds. Scioto is a swing county that often determines the outcomes of statewide elections in Ohio. Schmidt has also got quite a following in her home county of Clermont, though the number of registered Democrats there is on the rise.

The Democratic party has had its eye on OH-2 ever since Portman stepped aside. During the summer of 2005, the party sent resources and manpower into the district. Murtha has appeared in commercials in the past and will stump with Wulsin. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added the district to its "Red to Blue" list of priority races, and we can expect advertising from both congressional campaign committees soon.

As far as presidential coattails go, Schmidt will presumably ride the district's overwhelming preference for McCain. Ohio could go either way, but this district wants McCain over Obama by 19 points. With that advantage and support from the party, Schmidt may well defeat Wulsin on November 4. Whoever wins, after November 4, the losing party will likely seek out a stronger candidate and prevent round three.

David Wolfford is a government and politics teacher and writer in Cincinnati.