Congressional races take shape as Democrats push to retake House

11:13 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018 Politics
U.S. Capitol

A spate of congressional retirements, an historic tendency for the president’s party to lose congressional seats and low poll numbers for President Donald Trump have Republican House members skittish and Democrats more bullish than they’ve been in years.

But while analysts say seats will be up for grabs in more liberal states such as California, New York and Minnesota, Ohio may be a different story.

Most Ohio districts are dominated by one party or the other.

Of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts, they are not likely to flip parties, despite the fact that the state has two seats open – the 12th District near Columbus, most recently held by Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Twp. and the 16th District near Akron, currently held by Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, who is running for the U.S. Senate. Of the 16 House seats, 12 are held by Republicans and four are held by Democrats.

“If a Democratic wave is big enough, I could actually imagine several Ohio seats being potentially vulnerable,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But at the moment, the Ohio seats are sort of on the periphery of the national conversation.”

“If Democrats are winning congressional races in Ohio, then they’ve already won the majority,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections. “I don’t think any of the Ohio races are in the first or second tier.”

That said, Gonzales concedes it is possible for Ohio to get swept into a wave. He said Democrat Ken Harbaugh, who is challenging Republican Bob Gibbs of Lakeville in northeast Ohio, “is running a serious campaign,” and the 12th District could develop into a potentially interesting race, with more than 15 candidates seeking the seat. The filing deadline for the race is Feb. 7, meaning more may jump in in the weeks ahead.

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Among the seats that prognosticators such as the Cook Political Report have switched from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican” is the suburban Columbus 15th District, held by Rep. Steve Stivers, an Upper Arlington Republican who also chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Cook also ranks the 1st District seat held by Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, as “likely Republican.” Chabot’s most competitive opponent to date appears to be Robert Barr, a rabbi and first-time political candidate who said he raised $236,000 in final quarter of last year. Democrat Laura Weaver is also running. The district includes all of Warren County and most of Hamilton County.

Finally, they rank the seat vacated by Renacci as likely Republican. In that seat, Republican Anthony Gonzalez, a former Ohio State football standout, appears to be absorbing most of the political donations, reporting that he has raised $260,000 in the fourth quarter and with almost $750,000 in the bank as of the end of last year. Other candidates include Republicans state Rep. Christina Hagan, Darrell Hartman of Akron, and Army veteran Kit Seryak and Democrats Jennifer Herold, an occupational therapist from Strongsville, Mark Dent of Berea and North Olmsted physicist Aaron Godfrey.

Local races

Southwest Ohio’s other congressmen Jim Jordan, Warren Davidson and Mike Turner are in seats considered “safe Republican.” However, if Democrats see an opening, it’s possible money could move to some traditionally safe seats such as the 10th District which includes all of Montgomery and Greene counties and part of Fayette County.

In the 10th, Turner will possibly face the winner of the Democratic primary which could be Theresa Gasper, Michael Milisits or Robert Klepinger. Candidates have until Feb. 7 to make the ballot and other candidates have time to get in the race.

The 4th District, represented by Jordan, and the 8th represented by Davidson are among the most conservative in the state, and out of reach for Democrats.

Most of the state’s 16 congressional districts were drawn to be safer for incumbents. But Kondik argues that while 2012 was a “modestly pro-Democratic year, those districts have yet to be tested during a true Democratic wave.

“What happens to these districts when Democrats have a strong election?” he asked. “It remains to be seen, but maybe some members are more vulnerable than they look right now.”

Historic trends

One reason Democrats are so bullish is history. First-term presidents usually see sweeping congressional losses within their party during the first midterm elections, with the party in the White House losing seats in 18 of the last 21 midterm elections stretching back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. This year, Democrats will need to gain 24 seats in order to gain the majority. To do that, said Gonzales, “they can’t just cherry pick.” They’re going to need sweeping gains.

That’s where the retirements may factor in. Fifty-four House members have announced that they will are leaving office – 38 of them Republicans.

Open seats are important, said Gonzales, “because it decreases the number of well-funded entrenched incumbents that Democrats need to defeat to win the majority.”

But, he said, there’s a difference between Republican “Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida leaving her seat, which Hillary won by almost 20 points and Jim Renacci leaving his seat to run for Senate, leaving a Trump district.”

The final advantage they have is polls. Both Congress overall and Trump have high disapproval ratings – only 14.9 percent of the public approves of Congress’ job performance, according to an average of polls conducted in January calculated by RealClearPolitics.com, and an average of generic congressional ballots taken this month, meanwhile, averages positive 7.9 percent for Democrats, according to RealClearPolitics.com.

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Forty percent of the public, according to an average of polls taken this month, approve of Trump’s job performance.

“If Hillary Clinton was in the Oval Office, Democrats would have zero chance of taking back the House,” said Gonzales. “But President Trump is energizing the Democratic Party in a way that no Democrat could.”