Rep. Dennis Kucinich can finally stop traversing the country in search of a new district. Ohio Republicans gave him a new lease on life this week.
For the new congressional map set to be enacted, they took a scalpel to Kucinich’s Cleveland-area district, a much better outcome than the machete job he had been bracing for. Rather than eliminating his seat entirely, Republicans pushed it west toward Toledo along Lake Erie, leaving him in the same district as fellow Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur.
“Am I happy about it? You bet I am,” Kucinich told POLITICO after the new map was unveiled. “I feel a profound sense of gratitude that my district wasn’t cut in a way that would have made it impossible to run. I understand there’s nothing guaranteed here, but I can say that things look much better today than they did a few days ago.”
Kucinich has abandoned the potential Washington state congressional run he had been mulling over and says he’s definitely seeking reelection in the new district. But Ohio Democrats say he’s still got a long way to go before winning a ninth term.
“It really pits two extraordinarily strong voices for the middle class against each other,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, who used to represent part of the new district in the state House. “It will come down to the member who stays home the longest, who really stays in the district. You won’t be able to rely on just Cleveland television or Toledo television; it’s a district where retail politics will trump 30-second ads.”
“Whoever wins this race is the person who’s touched the most hands, in this case literally,” Redfern said.
Kaptur starts with a financial advantage, having finished June with almost $600,000 in the bank compared with $150,000 for Kucinich. But party insiders are split over who to peg as the early front-runner. Some give Kucinich that nod, in part, because he represents a greater share of the new district’s Democratic electorate and because his base in the Cleveland media market covers more of the district.
Others are giving Kaptur the upper hand. They point to her status as the longest-tenured member from Ohio and as the second-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. And they also say Kucinich’s presence on the national stage as a sometime presidential candidate, his excursions into issues far outside the district — like a trip to Syria — and his very public search for a new district have all damaged him back home.
And privately, many Democrats point out that Kucinich is hardly unassailable on his left flank like he used to be, noting his challenging primary in 2008.
“This isn’t the Dennis Kucinich of 15 years ago,” one high-ranking party official said.
Everyone’s predicting a hard-fought race.
“He’s going to go into this as a front-runner, the one to beat. And that sure as heck beats facing certain death,” a top Democratic strategist in the state said. “But his fling with the Washington state district could hurt. [Kaptur] could be viewed as someone who’s just focused on the needs of Ohio, whereas Congressman Kucinich has used his perch to reach beyond the needs of his congressional district. I don’t think, by any means, is it a gimme for him.”
“I don’t know who has the advantage in this race,” said David Leland, a Columbus-based Democratic attorney and former state party chairman. “Both of them have very strong profiles, both of them are very strong campaigners, both of them have been in Congress a long time. I don’t think either of them would overshadow the other in terms of the ability to put together a campaign.”
Kucinich and Kaptur met after the maps were released, and neither has drawn a sword against the other yet.
“Congresswoman Kaptur is my friend,” Kucinich said. “I have the greatest respect for her, and I always wish her well.”
Kucinich pointed to the parts of his Democratic base in and around Cleveland that he’s retained as a key strength. Kaptur echoed his high-road tone and signaled that she’ll run, in part, on her seniority.
“I have seniority that no other member in the state has, so there’s a lot of seniority at stake here,” she said. “We will, I think, conduct a high-level campaign. He is a friend of mine. I’m sad the Republicans have done this to us, but I think I have a real record of results that will come forward as the months go on.”
Jim Ruvolo, a former state party chairman, who recruited Kaptur 30 years ago and whose wife now serves on her staff, agreed that seniority will be key.
“Their voting records aren’t going to be dissimilar, so it might come down to who can be more effective, and Marcy’s been very effective,” he said. “She’s brought a lot of money back to the district, and while tea partiers might not like that, Democrats in primaries do.”