Sunday, October 3, 2004

Southwest Ohio has few contested House races

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

Democrat Greg Harris, who's challenging incumbent Rep. Steve Chabot for Ohio's 1st Congressional District seat, talks to Ela Atkins (left) and Deborah Hazeley at a Sept. 25 event at St. Mark's Catholic Church in Evanston.
EVANSTON - Living in the swing state of Ohio, Ted Banks will have an outsized role in picking the next president.

But when it comes to picking his own congressman, Banks lives in the wrong district and the wrong state.

"Not too much I can do about it," said Banks, a Democrat from Evanston who stopped by a Cookout for the Candidates at St. Mark's Catholic Church. "It's a Republican stronghold."

While all 435 seats in the U.S. House are up for election this November, the truth is that - as in previous years - only about 25 to 30 seats are truly contested.

Ohio's 1st Congressional District, where Banks lives, isn't one of them. Democrat Greg Harris is challenging 10-year incumbent Steve Chabot - a rematch of a race Chabot won last time, 65 percent to 35 percent.

And that may be the closest race in Southwest Ohio. Democrat Charles Sanders is challenging Rep. Rob Portman for the fourth time. He's never received more than 26 percent of the vote. Jeff Hardenbrook is once again challenging Rep. John Boehner, a race Boehner won 71 percent to 29 percent two years ago.

Redistricting and the power of incumbency have made most members of Congress unbeatable. Only four incumbents lost to challengers in the 2002 general election. Four incumbents lost to challengers in party primaries.

For 90 percent of voters, incumbency and redistricting mean their House vote matters very little.

1st District example

Greg Harris arrived at St. Mark's Church one recent Saturday to find an audience of empty chairs.

The 33-year-old former nonprofit director lingered a few minutes talking with church volunteers until a half-dozen people showed up.

Janice Allen-Blue, 52, a health administrator from Walnut Hills, said she doesn't like Chabot, doesn't like the Republican Congress, and doesn't like that the "powers that be" have assumed Chabot will be re-elected.

Like many challengers, Harris' low-budget campaign consists of "honk and waves," door-knocking, and attending any event that will have him. Harris said he is dismayed the Democratic Party is not targeting his race.

The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, told him: "They don't even look at you unless you can raise $300,000."

Harris' most recent fund-raising tally: $32,000. His campaign office is a rundown former TV repair shop in Over-the-Rhine. The bathroom has no door.

On the very day Harris was at St. Mark's, Chabot was in Westwood filming a biographical campaign commercial that will reach tens of thousands when it's broadcast on local television - something Harris can only dream of.

Everyone seems to know Chabot after 10 years in office. He grew up in Westwood, married a girl he met in the fourth grade, and until recently lived in a house around the corner from his mother.

Refrigerator repairman Mike Rogers of Delhi Township said he didn't know who was running against Chabot, "and I don't really care."

Why it matters

The 1st District wasn't always such a Republican lock.

For 18 years it was held by Democrats, including present Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken. Chabot won the seat in the Republican revolution of 1994, when it was still considered a swing district.

When the Ohio General Assembly redrew congressional districts after the 2000 census, state legislators added several Republican townships in Butler County and western Hamilton County to the district and sliced out some Democratic areas to the east.

Portman's district became slightly less Republican, but it is still about two-thirds GOP. Boehner, who didn't even bother to debate his opponent last time, also enjoys a district with a seemingly impregnable GOP margin.

The 3rd District, which includes northern Warren County, also had Republicans added to it, helping ensure that GOP Rep. Mike Turner won the seat in 2002 after Rep. Tony Hall, a Democrat, quit to take a job with the United Nations.

What's happened is that House districts have become more ideologically homogeneous, said Rob Richie, director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonpartisan group that has studied the nation's increasingly noncompetitive congressional races.

"It's not that everyone's happy with Congress. It's just that in most districts the incumbent represents the partisan inclination," Richie said.

Even Chabot agrees districts should be more competitive.

"I think that it would be much healthier for the electoral process if there were competitive districts," said Chabot.


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