Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
In that case, feel free to call these Republican congressional candidates crazy.
Riding Barack Obama’s lengthy coattails and benefitting from a perfect storm of conditions, Democrats won moderate districts in 2008 that had sent Republicans to Washington for decades. But, a handful of Republicans are gearing up to fight the good—and the same—fight again. From Maryland’s 1st District to the 5th in Arizona, the losers from 2008 are out to prove the Democratic wave was an aberration, not the new norm. But for the purposes of this story, Politics is setting its sights in the middle—the Middle West, that is. Steve Stivers is taking on freshman Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District again next year.
Kilroy, the Democrat, won the open seat in one of the most brutal—and expensive—contests of the last cycle, and the rematch promises to be just as hard-fought. Each candidate has plenty of money and rabid supporters, and the national parties are chomping at the bit to prove their superiority—and there’s a certain president of the United States hanging over the whole scene.
Who ends up the victor in the second battle of Stivers and Kilroy won’t be clear until Election Day 2010, but it’s very likely the race will be a good indicator for the rest of the cycle’s contested races. If the GOP wants to regain its footing in swing districts, it has to do well in Ohio’s 15th.
Mary Jo Kilroy isn’t the most natural politician. The first term Democratic congresswoman from Ohio is some- what soft-spoken and doesn’t draw attention to herself. When delivering a speech, she speaks slowly and often looks somewhat uncomfortable in the spotlight. In answering questions, she is deliberate and usually delivers responses that are far from incendiary, sometimes approaching banal.
That doesn’t mean she isn’t effective. At a ‘women for healthcare reform’ event outside the Capitol in early October, Kilroy shared the podium with House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi and a handful of her female congressional colleagues. While the other members delivered talking-point-laced, rally-style speeches, Kilroy calmly discussed living with multiple sclerosis and personified the health insurance struggles facing many Americans. “If I were to lose my group healthcare coverage, it would be very unlikely that there would be an insurance company that would want to write a policy for me,” she said. While the other speakers hit their applause lines, Kilroy’s remarks told the most compelling story.
The Republican whom Kilroy beat in 2008, Steve Stivers, is many things that she is not. He is pretty much- what the GOP would get if it called central casting to look for a congressional candidate. He’s good-looking and has a military background that includes a tour of duty in Iraq and a Bronze Star. House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio helped recruit Stivers and kept him on speed dial through last year’s race. Stivers seems to thoroughly enjoy talking to the media and raises money by the truckload. Republicans in Washington, D.C. have described him with phrases like “rock star” and “golden boy.” One National Republican Congressional Committee official says, “Stivers is probably the best candidate of last year to lose.” Then, after reflecting a moment, the official adds: “Actually, he is probably the best candidate on the Republican side.”
Republicans have another chance to get their “golden boy” into Congress. Stivers is running against Kilroy again in 2010 in what promises to be one of the most contested and heavily scrutinized races of the cycle. And the conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that Stivers should win. In 2008, Kilroy benefitted from outsized turnout at Ohio State University because Barack Obama was on the ticket in what turned out to be a Democratic wave, that thinking goes. “The arithmetic is very difficult for the congresswoman, and that makes her one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country,” political handicapper Stu Rothenberg wrote in a September Roll Call column.
Such pessimism hasn’t infected the Kilroy team or national party Democrats who all say they are more confident going into next year’s race than they were going into last year’s. “Even though I view it as a swing district, I am very confident about my campaign and reelection opportunity,” Kilroy says.
Unfortunately for the congresswoman, Stivers and national party Republicans share the same attitude about the challenger’s chances. “I think I am going to win this race,” he says. “I feel a little better about things this year than I did in 2008.”
This race is on everyone’s watch list for what it may reveal about the post-Obama electoral landscape. The 15th District is the consummate swing district, inside the consummate swing state. While other districts should be slam-dunks for the GOP next year—former Rep. Steve Chabot (R) running to retake his old seat in Ohio’s 1st District from Rep. Steve Driehaus (D) comes to mind—neither party has a clear advantage in this race. A victory here is central to the 2010 narratives both parties are trying to write. If Kilroy wins, the Democrats will say they have claimed central Ohio for the blue team and that they don’t need the president’s coattails. If Stivers wins, the Republicans will say 2008 was an aberration and that the GOP is on the upswing.
Kilroy explains that her district has a history of being a bellwether: “My district used to be a test market for a lot of products before they went nationwide. There’s a reason for that. It’s a microcosm of the nation. And so, as my district goes, you can see what the nation is thinking and vice versa.”
Last year’s race between Stivers and Kilroy turned so negative that just asking about it gets a chuckle out of many who were involved. More than one person uses the same word to describe it: Brutal. “It was brutal as anything,” says one. “It was unreal how brutal that race was.”
With Democrats seeking to pick up as many seats as possible in what everyone expected to be a wave on Election Day 2008, the stakes were high in the 15th
District. Democrats saw an opportunity in the changing demographics of the district and funneled cash into the race. The DCCC spent more than $2.1 million on the race, double what the NRCC spent. Several left-leaning independent groups—such as the AFL-CIO—also went on the air against Stivers.
Republicans, on the other hand, hoped Stivers could hold out against the blue tide and cement the district in the solidly Republican column. A Republican, after all, had held the seat for more than 40 years. A Democratic win would also be a subtle swipe at House Minority Leader John Boehner, whose district is nearby. Stivers ran as a moderate Republican who drew on his experience in the financial industry and his five years of experience representing most of the congressional district in the Ohio Senate. He supported abortion rights and cap-and-trade energy legislation. He also avoided campaigning with John McCain and Sarah Palin for almost the entire race. Stivers hoped he could pick up votes from near his home in Franklin County, which was a traditionally Democratic area of the district.
Kilroy had been planning her 2008 run since she was declared the loser in the 2006 race against former Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) by 1,055 votes in a recount. She brought in a new team led by Randy Borntrager, who was previously with the Ohio Democratic Party and is now her chief of staff. According to multiple people involved, the team was well organized and relentless.
And it had to be; the race turned negative from the very beginning. Stivers attacked Kilroy for wasting tax- payer money when she was a Franklin County Com- missioner and before that when she was on the county’s school board. He also swung away at a baseball stadium being built in Columbus for its minor league baseball team. Kilroy, Stivers charged, insisted that union contractors be used in the construction, and that cost the taxpayers more than the construction would have otherwise.
Kilroy and the DCCC attacked Stivers on several fronts but ultimately focused on one line of attack. Stivers had worked for seven years as a vice president at Bank One.
During that time he was a registered lobbyist. As the financial world began to meltdown in September, culminating with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Democrats sought to paint Stivers as part of the financial system that protects and enriches executives at taxpayer expense.
Going into Election Day, polls showed the race nearly even, despite the McCain-Palin ticket slipping on the national level. The Stivers camp remained optimistic because of its ground game. Led by campaign manager Michael Hartley, who was the political director of George W. Bush’s famed 2004 Ohio GOTV operation, the Stivers camp didn’t use the national party’s get-out-the-vote operation at all.
But complicating the picture for Stivers were two third party candidates that were allowed on the ballot: Don Eckhart, an anti-abortion advocate who appealed to Christian conservatives, and Mark Noble, a libertarian candidate.
The results were close enough that it took a month after Election Day to find out who won. Kilroy claimed a victory of 2,312 votes after all the provisional ballots were counted, winning with 45.94 percent, a significantly lower share than Obama’s 54 percent in the district.
Stivers earned 45.18 percent of the vote while Noble pulled 4.6 percent and Eckhart took about 4.3 percent. Immediately after the loss, several Republicans advised Stivers to run again despite incumbents tending to have the advantage in rematches, as independent political analyst Rhodes Cook notes. “Rematches generally go better for the person who wins it the first time,” he says. “There has already been a winner and the winner has the advantages of incumbency and two years on the job.”
National Republicans continue to be smitten by Stivers as a candidate for several reasons, though. First, he is a proven fundraiser. He raised $2 million for the last race and has already raised $278,000 in the first quarter for his 2010 candidacy. Stivers says he plans to raise between $2.5 and $3 million this time around.
Second, he has a great resume. Stivers is a moderate Republican who spent five years in the state Senate representing most of the 15th Congressional District. He is enlisted in the Ohio National Guard and is an Iraq War veteran. Third, Stivers makes a good pitch. He is well spoken, earnest and, as one reporter who covered last year’s race says, comes off as a “straight-A student.” He even looks like a politician. Stivers also has a sharp political mind and, when asked, breaks down last year’s results nearly by every ward in the district.
It is within those precinct-by-precinct numbers where the GOP sees a solid chance to win with Stivers. Both third party candidates hurt Stivers in 2008. “If you really look at it,” Stivers says, “in the best Democratic year of my lifetime Kilroy was only able to get a little less than 46 percent of the vote, which means that 54 percent of voters cast their ballot for a much more conservative candidate than her.” Kilroy also performed worse than Obama throughout most of the district, Stivers points out, and Kilroy won’t be able to count on the Obama mania next time around.
“Turnout alone,” he says, “may be enough to change things.” Stivers also hopes the top of the state ticket in 2010 will play to his advantage the same way Obama did for Kilroy in 2008. Former Rep. John Kasich (R) is running for governor and is popular in the Columbus area, Stivers says, so he should drum up enthusiasm among the
One of Kilroy’s biggest strengths—incumbency—is the subject of one of Stivers’ early attacks for 2010. Stivers says Kilroy isn’t representing the majority of his district and that independents who backed her last year—without whom she would have lost—are unsatisfied.
“She’s probably doing a good job at representing the 45 percent of the people who voted for her, but there are 54 percent that didn’t vote for her, and she’s not doing
anything to represent them,” he says.
National Republicans are also keeping a close watch on Kilroy’s voting record. In more than one conversation, Republicans brought up their magic P-word when talking about Kilroy: Pelosi. The “Bay Area Liberal”—as Republicans like to call Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—is politically toxic among Midwestern independents, they contend, and Kilroy is voting with the speaker more times than not.
Case in point, here’s John McClelland, a spokesman for the Ohio GOP: “Voters want an independent thinker who has proven leadership skills, not a far-left liberal who’d rather vote the views of Nancy Pelosi than her own constituents.”
Stivers is already working on a line of attack on the economy, as well. Kilroy sits on the House Financial Services Committee and, according to Stivers, it has “done nothing” in the way of new regulations to cope with the financial meltdown that led to the current recession.
All of this has Republicans geared up for next year. “I wouldn’t say it’s simple, and I wouldn’t say Stivers is going to win without hard work,” says Mark Weaver, an Ohio Republican consultant, “but the metrics of this congressional race are set up to favor Stivers and disfavor Kilroy. Her favorability rating is down, the generic Democratic ballot number ID down and the incumbency that normally helps is going to hurt her.”
Just as Republicans make a strong argument for Stivers, Kilroy and Democrats make a pretty solid case for her reelection. At the moment, Kilroy and her team appear focused on compiling a record in Congress that she can run on. And they believe they are accomplishing that through her work on the Financial Services Committee and toward healthcare reform. Some on Kilroy’s team from last year even scoff at the prognosticators who say that Kilroy will be one of the first Democrats to lose next year, dismissing it as inside the beltway chatter.
One of the most important reasons for the confidence among Kilroy’s team is that Stivers is a known quantity. “He had a chance in the last campaign because he was a blank slate to fill in however he wanted,” says Karl Struble, Kilroy’s media consultant last year. “He came out of that election with high negatives. So, it’s not like he walks in without scabs or bruises.”
Kilroy herself points to Democratic trends in the district. “More Democratic registrations, more people voting for Democratic candidates, more Democrats winning elections in local offices,” Kilroy says. In the last six years voter registration in the district has flipped from a two to one advantage for Republicans to a nearly two to one advantage for Democrats.
Those numbers don’t take into account one of Kilroy’s most important personal attributes: She’s tough. Very tough. In every race Kilroy has run—from her early days as a Franklin County Commissioner—she has been attacked relentlessly. When asked if she anticipates another largely negative race, she replies unemotionally:
“People forget that I ran in 2006 against a member of the Republican House leadership who had every advantage at her disposal—every financial advantage and all types of field operatives in a way that I didn’t have,” Kilroy says, referring to her run against Pryce. “And yet that was a recount election.” That race against Pryce also proves that she has experience running into the wind—as may be the case again next year—instead of just with it at her back, Kilroy says.
“I know Steve has been going around saying that it was just because it was a presidential year,” Kilroy adds, “but I think there are a lot of differences in each election. And this election we have a Democratic president, we have a Democratic governor, I’m the incumbent as a member of Congress.”
Kilroy’s team also disputes the Republican argument that she benefited from a significant boost in university turnout. Many students voted for third party candidates in 2008, they contend, pointing to results that show that college wards actually backed Kilroy at a lower rate than they did in 2006. Because of that, Stivers actually benefited more from increased turnout in the rural counties than Kilroy did in the college wards, Kilroy’s backers say.
Democrats also say that Stivers is still vulnerable to their most poignant attack from last cycle: That he worked as a lobbyist for the financial industry. While the collapse of Lehman Brothers last September painted the financial sector in a bad light, that perception has only worsened since the election. Struble calls that work Stivers’ “Achilles heel.” “He’s a lobbyist from the wrong industry to be running for Congress right now,” he says. “I can’t think of a worse vocation or industry to be from to run for elected office.”
Kilroy is ready to launch that line of attack again when asked about the rematch: “I don’t think that the people of Ohio are going to warmly embrace somebody who was a bank lobbyist, who has lobbied the state legislature for the same kind of deregulation that, on a federal level, has led us to the mess that we are in now,” she says. “I think that, with what is going on in the financial sector, I think that’s
a big liability for him.”
Stivers appears ready for this line of attack. When asked about it, he quickly pivots to job creation. “I’m proud of the time I spent at Bank One helping one of central
Ohio’s biggest companies create jobs,” he says. “They created about 15,000 jobs here when I left to go be a state senator.”
Republicans and Democrats both lay out coherent arguments in favor of their candidates, but it feels like the Republicans are looking backward more than forward. Ultimately, their case for Stivers breaks down to this: Stivers was so close last year that he has to be the favorite to win next year. Obama had an enormous effect on turnout last year, and he won’t be on the ballot next year. Right now, it’s a campaign that seems to focus more on what Stivers did than what he will do.
The road to success in 2010 for Stivers won’t be that straightforward. As a challenger, Stivers has to convince voters to switch horses, something he didn’t have to do last year. He will also have to maintain his effective ground game. Hartley, the veteran Ohio field operative who managed his 2008 campaign, isn’t returning, choosing to work for Kasich’s gubernatorial campaign. Instead, Adam Kuhn, Stivers’ political director from last cycle, will be campaign manager. Stivers says he is on his way to %uFB01 elding a strong grassroots team and has signed up 1,200 new volunteers already.
Stivers is coming under attack from the right—again—for his support of abortion rights. David Ryon, who appears to be running on an anti-abortion rights platform, announced in August that he would challenge Stivers in the Republican primary. That hardly worried Republicans at the time since Stivers would likely emerge from that primary unscathed. But in a late October announcement that undoubtedly was not welcomed by the Republican establishment, Ryon announced he’ll run as a third party candidate in the general election—just as Eckhart and Noble did last year. On top of that, Stivers will also face a Republican primary from John Adams, who also opposes abortion rights. After the chaos in 2009’s special election in New York’s 23 District, a moderate like Stivers will be increasingly concerned with such challengers.
All of this doesn’t mean that Kilroy is heading for a cakewalk. Kilroy will have to find a way to compensate for the support she received from the Obama coordinated campaign last year—particularly when it comes to GOTV. Kilroy says she will have a strong operation on her own and points out that Organizing for America, the president’s political arm, is still at work in Ohio. She also notes that Gov. Ted Strickland (D) will have a strong field operation in place for his reelection bid.
From a macro perspective, the national mood toward Democrats may continue to sour. Most Democrats appear acutely aware that is a possibility, and it explains why they dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to a late October Kilroy fundraiser in Columbus. Even members of Kilroy’s team privately acknowledge that if the healthcare debate blows up, it could have a significant impact on her reelection chances because she campaigned so heavily on the issue and has dedicated so much of her work since to it.
At this point, though, both Stivers and Kilroy think they are in good shape, if not sure things. “I never take anything for granted,” Kilroy says. “I am always going to view my district as a swing district.”
Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer for Politics magazine.