Kucinich Falls to Kaptur in Ohio's 9th District

Kucinich Falls to Kaptur in Ohio's 9th District

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - March 7, 2012

Dennis Kucinich's tenure on Capitol Hill apparently will come to end with the close of the 112th Congress: The Ohio lawmaker -- a two-time presidential candidate who began his political career as a baby-faced Cleveland City Councilman four decades ago -- lost the 9th Congressional District's Democratic primary to the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives, Marcy Kaptur, by at least 20 points. 

Kucinich wasn't the only House incumbent to lose. Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt lost her primary in Ohio’s 2nd district to Brad Wenstrup, an Iraq war veteran who ran for mayor in Cincinnati in 2009. Wenstrup won 49 percent of the vote to Schmidt's 43 percent in a four-way primary, running to the right of Schmidt and challenging her conservative credentials. It was a surprising upset for the incumbent, who squeaked through other tight primary challenges since her special election win in 2005; many expected her to do so again this time. Schmidt outspent her chief opponent, but a Texas-based super PAC targeting incumbents spent thousands of dollars on radio ads against her. Wenstrup is favored to win the general election in November. 

The Kucinich-Kaptur contest was the first of several where redistricting has pitted incumbents of the same party against each other, and the race was almost as negative as the presidential primary that absorbed much of the spotlight in Ohio on Tuesday. Kucinich conceded the race to his colleague with sour words, saying Kaptur ran a campaign that "was utterly lacking in integrity." He won his home region of Cuyahoga County while Kaptur won hers in Lucas, and edged her opponent in Lorain, considered the most critical county in determining the election's outcome. 

Due to slow population growth over the past decade, Ohio lost two congressional seats, including Kucinich's Cleveland-based district. Republicans tasked with reconfiguring the map there redrew Kaptur's Toledo-based district to include about 40 percent of Kucinich's old territory. The new 9th is a lean 120-mile stretch of land along Lake Erie's southern shore.

Kaptur had geography on her side heading into this race and some operatives in the region say there was little Kucinich could do to overcome that deficit. Others, like Cleveland State University political science professor Joel Lieske, said a Kucinich loss could be evidence that the congressman, who shopped for a new district when he learned his would be eliminated, "has probably outlived his welcome in terms of expectations from his constituents."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer's editorial board had called the city's former mayor "as comfortable as an old shoe" but endorsed Kaptur, whom it argued could bring home the bacon from her seat as the second highest ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. Just last week, the committee's ranking member, Washington Rep. Norm Dicks, announced his retirement, giving Kaptur a timely boost and putting her in line for top honors.

Kaptur used her appropriations seat to attack Kucinich, touting Toledo transportation projects she brought to her state. In an interview with RealClearPolitics last week, Kaptur said she had a "deep concern" that Kucinich would not be able to make the same gains in the new district.

Cleveland-based strategist Bill Burges, who was not affiliated with any of the campaigns, told RCP that Kaptur secured sizable campaign contributions in Kucinich's Cuyahoga County and wrapped up support from businesses and the Lorain County establishment, while "Dennis campaigned the way he always campaigned. But this was a different kind of race where there was a lot more money on the other side."

Kucinich, an outspoken anti-war lawmaker, went after Kaptur for supporting war-funding legislation and ran a radio ad in the Cleveland market claiming she "voted to waste half a trillion on Bush's wars," while he "voted to bring our troops and their money home to rebuild our economy."

Kucinich's impending exit from Ohio will leave Congress without its fiercest anti-war voice at a time when Americans are war-weary. And that, some strategists say, will be his legacy.

"Kucinich was one of the more vocal and aggressive opponents of the [Iraq] war at the start, and I think that in some ways he really helped ignite that wing of the party to kind of stand up and not be afraid about voicing their opposition to the Iraq war," said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist and former Capitol Hill staffer. "He really picked up a lot of steam with activists and folks in the grassroots. . . . He figured out a way to carve out a national profile" without being a member of the party's leadership.

This national profile has fueled his detractors -- Kaptur told RCP Kucinich is a "show horse, not a work horse." He also took heat this summer for embarking on a "fact-finding" mission to Syria last summer and meeting with President Bashar al-Assad. But such activism excited his supporters, some of whom encouraged him to run in Washington state, which gained a congressional seat this cycle. Kaptur went after Kucinich for courting other districts. In a radio ad released last week, she likened him to LeBron James and Art Modell, two reviled sports figures who left Ohio for other opportunities.

Kucinich's campaign demurred this week when asked what the congressman would do if he were to lose the primary. Washington state's filing deadline isn't until May 18, so Kucinich has time to run for a seat there. And as Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Chairman Stuart Garson told RCP before the polls closed Tuesday, "Underestimate Dennis at your own peril."

Meanwhile, in the Columbus-area 3rd Congressional District, Ohio House Minority Leader Joyce Beatty defeated former Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy by three percentage points. (Kilroy has been hoping for a comeback after being defeated in 2010.) And Republicans nominated Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel to run against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in November. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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