Former seven-term congressman Steve Chabot is poised to represent Ohio’s first district again after his 2008 loss to Democrat Steve Driehaus. Chabot’s comfortable lead in the polls reflects the district’s disgust with fiscal irresponsibility and the federal government’s sharp left turn.
Ohio’s First Congressional District, in the state’s southwest corner, includes most of Cincinnati and its western suburbs. It’s historically a swing district in a swing state. In 1994, Chabot won the seat, previously held by Democrats, and some of his six reelection victories were close. The city, with its large black population, was becoming more Democratic. The industrial west side includes a large union presence. In 2006, Chabot survived a tough challenge from a popular, Pelosi-picked city councilman who portrayed him as an aloof Washington insider. But two years later, the pro-life Democrat Driehaus, riding Obama’s coattails, defeated him 52 to 47 percent.
In fact, Chabot is anything but an out-of-touch big-spender. He was born in nearby Reading (as was Minority Leader John Boehner), where he lived in a trailer park until his parents moved to the west side. He taught briefly at an impoverished, largely African-American school while earning his law degree at night. The Democrats’ mischaracterization has forced him to remind voters of his roots and his 1993 Buick. At a recent debate before the nonpartisan Western Economic Council at a rather fancy banquet hall, Driehaus opened with a sentimental recollection of his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary at the same venue. Chabot followed, “My parents, too, had their 50th anniversary,” pausing for effect, “not here, but down the street at Dick and Tom’s.” The crowd chuckled, recognizing the family restaurant that made the perfect myth-buster. “Steve is one of the hardest workers you’ll ever meet,” says Boehner, who’s known him since the 1990s. “You can’t miss him at a parade, picnic, or community event.”
“Spending, fiscal discipline, that’s pretty important to people around here,” Chabot tells me. He’s made it a priority and has a strong record against his party’s recent lackluster reputation. He’s not afraid to criticize the GOP and refuses to join in when the party veers off course.
“For a while Republicans got it right,” Chabot said, citing welfare reform and the balanced budget. But he opposed the party on reopening the federal government after the shutdown. He was in a slim minority in his caucus opposing the 2003 Medicare-prescription drug bill, even after a 5 a.m. phone call from President Bush. More recently he opposed TARP and the auto bailout. “I got a lot more, ‘thanks for voting against it,’ than criticism,” he asserts. “Now the big guys criticized me, the big banks, the insurance people,” he says unapologetically. “They were all over me.” FEC reports prove they haven’t forgotten.
Chabot’s campaign headquarters show him to be less a fiscal conservative than an extreme tightwad. Located in the working class town of Cheviot, it has an old tile floor, makeshift partitions, and a lazy stray cat in residence.
Beyond jobs and the economy, abortion ranks as an important issue in this heavily Catholic district. Driehaus and other Rust Belt pro-life Democrats lost ground with abortion opponents by supporting Obamacare, settling for the Stupak compromise that did not preserve the Hyde Amendment. This and Chabot’s tenacious sponsorship of the partial-birth abortion ban a few years ago, one of his proudest accomplishments, has put Driehaus on the defensive. The incumbent won a battle at the state elections commission over the Susan B. Anthony List’s attempt to erect billboards claiming “Driehaus voted FOR tax-payer-funded abortion,” but he’s losing the war. Of pro-lifers, 77 percent plan to vote for Chabot.
The most recent poll has Chabot up 12 points. Even more reassuring for him is the DCCC’s decision to pull a half-million dollar ad buy that was planned for the final stretch.
Even so, the race isn’t totally over. The two Steves have comparable funds and similar past and planned ad time from their own funds. Unlike the 2008 race, the rematch is nasty. When I ask Chabot if Driehaus has been fair, he replies with a resounding, “No!” What bothers him most is an attack ad portraying a veteran’s medal request, lost in the bureaucracy during the 2008-2009 transition, as Chabot’s snubbing of veterans.
Driehaus, meanwhile, hasn’t given up. He has a reputation as a tireless shoe leather campaigner. His father served as Hamilton County chairman years ago, and his sister holds a local seat in the Ohio House of Representatives. He came out swinging at the final debate, calling Chabot’s one-month severance to his staff upon leaving office a “bonus” and claiming that Exxon, Wall Street, and the health care industry “want their old friend back.” Chabot looked irritated—or maybe just impatient to get back to Capitol Hill.
David Wolfford teaches government and politics in Cincinnati.