Democrats Robert Barr, Michele Young Ready To Challenge Steve Chabot

Jan 7, 2018

This may sound like crazy talk, but there are some out there in Democratic circles – both here and in Washington – who believe Ohio's 1st Congressional District will be in play in 2018.

Taking on Republican Steve Chabot, the Westwood Republican who has represented Ohio's 1st Congressional district for all but two of the past 23 years, seems, on the surface at least, to be Mission Impossible.

Only Democrat Steve Driehaus has done it, back in 2008, when he rode in on the Obama wave. Two years later, Chabot returned and reclaimed the seat and has trampled Democratic opponents ever since.

Most politicos believe it highly unlikely, but there are those who believe, passionately, that it can be done – especially if GOP's titular head, President Donald Trump, continues to free-fall downward in the public opinion polls.

Is this the year Chabot could stumble again?

Last year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) was scouring the countryside in Ohio 1 (shorthand for Ohio's 1st Congressional District), looking for a well-known Democrat to take on Chabot.

At the top of the list was Hamilton County commissioner Todd Portune, who has proven he can win cross-over votes from Republicans. But, in the end, Portune gave the DCCC a thumbs-down.

Then there was Mark Lippert, a former Navy SEAL who was ambassador to South Korea under the Obama administration. Another no-go.

And P.G. Sittenfeld was approached by the DCCC. So, too, was state representative Alicia Reece. So far, nothing has come of that either.

The filing deadline for candidates is February 7. Still time for some Bigfoot Democrat to wade into the race, but the clock is ticking.

The candidate who took Chabot on two years ago – Michele Young, a lawyer from Indian Hill and a social activist –   told WVXU Friday that she plans to formally announce her candidacy by the beginning of February.

Young did pretty well in the Hamilton County portion of the district in 2016, winning nearly 48 percent of the vote. But she was clobbered in Warren County, taking only 26 percent of the vote.

Warren County was handed to Chabot in the redistricting done by the Republicans in the Ohio legislature after the 2000 census; and, for Chabot, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

Rabbi Robert Barr
Credit Provided

Today, one month away from the candidate filing deadline, the most active candidate to take on Chabot in Ohio 1 appears to be one who would make history if he were elected.

His name is Robert Barr; and what makes him unique is that he is a rabbi – and no rabbi has ever been elected to Congress. Catholic priests, a couple; Protestant ministers, a bunch.

But never a rabbi.

And Barr is the only rabbi to run who is a "pulpit rabbi" – meaning that he leads a congregation, performs weddings, burials, bar mitzvahs and other functions. Thirty-seven years ago, the 62-year-old Barr, a product of Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, founded Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, which he still leads today.

"I am not running to become the first rabbi to be elected to Congress,'' Barr told WVXU. "I am running to be a congressman who happens to be a rabbi."

Barr said he made the decision to run "by watching what was going on in politics in this country. I was extremely disheartened. I saw people who had been good friends stop talking to each other. The atmosphere has been poisonous."

Some of his own friends, he said, tried to discourage him from running.

"The first thing I heard from some of my friends was, 'Bob, running for Congress is going to be awful,''' Barr told WVXU. "But the more they talked about how bad it was, the more I wanted to do it."

Barr is discouraged by what he sees coming out of Washington today – the acrimony, the name-calling, the extreme partisanship that grinds legislation to a halt and results in nothing positive getting done.

"Politics in Washington is so balkanized, so divided,'' Barr said. "People on both sides appear to be unwilling to talk to each other because they are afraid of being seen as weak or as a loser."

As for Chabot, Barr said, "after 20 years, I've not seen him work to repair that damage."

Barr is idealistic, but he is not delusional. He knows perfectly well that defeating Chabot would be a steep climb in that heavily-Republican district.

"I just have this feeling that, right now, people are looking for someone who has worked in the community, someone who is authentic,'' Barr said. "I've been doing that for 37 years."

Last week, he announced an impressive group to serve as his campaign co-chairs.

They are retired Judge Nathaniel Jones of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Barb Rinto, the former director of the University of Cincinnati's Women's Center; and Sallie Westheimer, the retired CEO of 4C for Children.

He is not going to run a campaign on duct tape and bailing wire; he plans on raising serious money for this campaign – although he knows that, in a general election, Chabot and his allies, would outspend him by a large margin. Chabot already has over $1 million in his campaign account.

Barr told WVXU that as of about two weeks ago, he had raised $150,000 for his campaign since he officially became a candidate on Oct. 15. He won't say how much he has now, but said that when he files his first quarter campaign finance report with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) it will be "substantial."

The only Democratic candidate in Ohio 1 to have filed a campaign finance report so far with the FEC is a little-known transgender dentist named Laura Ann Weaver, who has a little over $8,000 in the bank.

While Barr is out raising money and putting together a campaign organization, Young is organizing. her campaign. 

Michele Young
Credit Provided

Young said her complaint with Chabot, who has represented the district for all but two of the last 23 years, is not personal; it is completely political and policy-driven.

"I like Steve Chabot," Young said of her Ohio 1 run in 2016. "We had a fun time on the campaign trail. He's a gentleman. It's not about him. It’s about making sure the needs of the people of the district are met."

On a host of issues, Young said, including health care for children, sexual harassment, care for the elderly and protecting the environment, "he's been absent for the past 20 years."

She said she likes Barr too, but pointed out that as a Hyde Park resident, he doesn't live in the district. 

Members of the U.S. House are not required to live in the districts they represent. 

"I have worked in the district all my adult life,'' Barr said. "The issue is where do I work, not where I sleep." 

Some Democratic party leaders got a little overexcited last year when they were putting together a list of targeted congressional district and saw that Ohio's First Congressional District and saw the numbers from the 2016 presidential campaign.

Donald Trump won Ohio 1 by 6.6 percentage points – his narrowest margin of victory in any of the state's Republican-held congressional districts.

That, for a while at least, made the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) feel all warm and fuzzy about Ohio 1.

They probably felt less so when reminded of another fact about the district – Chabot defeated Young by 18 percentage points.

In short, Chabot is (or was, at least) clearly far more popular in Ohio 1 than Donald Trump.

Sabato's Crystal Ball, a weekly newsletter published by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and its director, Larry J. Sabato, closely monitors every House and Senate race in the country.

Right now, the Crystal Ball lists Ohio 1 as Likely Republican, which is one step down from Safe Republicans and one step up from the Leans Republican category.

Kyle Kondik, an Ohioan and the managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, cautions that not too much should be read into Chabot's 18 percentage point lead in 2016.

"House performance can vary widely from election to election,'' Kondik said. "An 18-point margin can dissipate very quickly."

There are many factors that could make it a more competitive race, Kondik said – most notably, a possibly drastic drop in the popularity of Trump in the district between now and November.

"Still, though, you have to look at this district and think that is likely to stay Republican,'' Kondik said. "The Democrats can win back control of the House without picking up a single seat in Ohio."

And, in the end, that is why Ohio 1 will not end up being a prime target for the Democrats as they try to win back control of the House.