Do The Democrats Believe They Have A Real Shot At Defeating Chabot?

May 21, 2017

Does the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) seriously think that Republican incumbent Steve Chabot is vulnerable next year in southwest Ohio's First Congressional District?

Apparently so.

And the DCCC is actively trying to drum up interest among potential candidates.

At the top of the list is Todd Portune, the long-time Hamilton County commissioner who has proven that he can pull crossover voters in Republican parts of the county.

Credit Bill Rinehart / WVXU

Portune is a known commodity and one who could probably take away one of Chabot's favorite lines that he uses against Democratic opponents in the past – that he is the one against wasteful government spending. Portune has a reputation as something of a tightwad when it comes to spending tax dollars, at least for a Democrat.

There are others on the list of those being sounded out by the DCCC.

One is P.G. Sittenfeld, the Cincinnati councilman who is running for re-election this year. Sittenfeld took a shot at the U.S. Senate in a primary with Ted Strickland last Spring and lost badly, but he didn't seem to do himself any permanent damage with the Democratic party establishment.

Some of them, in fact, believe that Sittenfeld might have proved to have been a stronger candidate against Republican incumbent Rob Portman than Strickland, whose campaign was bulldozed by Portman.

And Sittenfeld has shown that he can raise big boatloads of money, which is what it would take to up-end Chabot in this district, which takes in much of the west side of Hamilton County and all of Warren County.

He could appeal, too, to Millennials who might need a little push to get to the polls. The 32-year-old council member is, after all, one of them.

P.G. Sittenfeld
Credit Sarah Ramsey

Sittenfeld didn’t rule out running for Congress, but told WVXU that is not the first thing on his mind.

"It's flattering that the national folks would be interested, but my focus is squarely on Cincinnati and specifically our current budget process,'' Sittenfeld said. "If anything ever changes, I'll be sure to let you know."

Then, too, the DCCC is giving a look a State Rep. Alicia Reece, who is term-limited out of the Ohio House this year. She's looking at either running for a statewide constitutional office or taking on Chabot for Congress.

The DCCC sees her as a well-known name who might be able to fire up African-American voters in the district in a way that other candidates could not.

Reece told WVXU she is looking at the possibility of running for  either Congress or a statewide office in 2018. She said she has had a meeting with the officials of the DCCC.

"I think they are looking at it,'' Reece said of the DCCC. "I don't know how serious is it. I haven't had any hard-core discussions about it.

Alicia Reece
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU

"It's very early,'' Reece told WVXU. "It's a strange time right now. I'm watching the situation very closely. I'm talking to people here and in Washington about it. "

But, she said, she is nowhere near making a decision about running.

Then, there are a number of other people who have contacted local party officials about running – Michele Young of Indian Hill, who ran against Chabot in 2016 and ended up with 41 percent of the vote; Laura Ann Weaver, a dentist; Samuel Ronan, a Warren County Democrat who ran a dark horse campaign for Democratic National Committee chairman earlier this year; Robert A. Barr, a rabbi; and Eric Elias, the co-founder of a high-tech start-up company called Lagoon.

Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke said all of them have expressed interest in running.

But, clearly, Portune is at the top of the list.

There are few times when Portune won't talk, but WVXU has been unable to reach him about this race.

Portune was in Washington last week to testify before a congressional committee. Word is that he had a chat with the folks from the DCCC while he was in D.C.

Given the fact that Chabot won re-election in 2016 with 59 percent of the vote, you might well wonder why the DCCC is even bothering to look at this district.

On Jan. 30, Dan Sena, the DCCC's executive director, put out a memo laying out why the DCCC is starting the 2018 congressional campaign cycle on the offense. He points to an unpopular president in the White House, Donald Trump; dissatisfaction with the House Republicans' legislative agenda and, perhaps most significantly, the fact that since 1982, the president's party has lost an average of 28 seats in the first mid-term election, "even accounting for Republican gains in 2002 under President Bush.

As of April 25, the partisan break-down of the U.S. House was 238 Republicans, 193 Democrats and four vacancies.

Winning control of the House is doable, if you listen to the DCCC.

According to the memo, Ohio's First Congressional District is on list of "DCCC Targets – Round One."

You can expect this list to contract and expand as we get closer to the 2018 election.

But there it is: OH-1, a targeted race.

And why is this?

It has to do mostly with the fact that Trump won the district last fall by about seven percentage points – the smallest margin of any of the Republican-held seats in Ohio. Republicans hold 12 of Ohio's 16 House seats, by the way.

Chabot, though, outperformed Trump in the district by eight percentage points.

Chabot has been very careful about Trump, praising him when he thinks he is right and criticizing him when he thinks he is wrong.

Democrats are banking on Trump to completely tank and be so hugely unpopular by November 2018 that any Republican who has even set eyes on him will be in trouble.

We can't predict the future on that one.

Chabot, though, still has an ace in the hole. A gift given to him by his friends in the Ohio General Assembly when they re-drew congressional district lines after the 2010 U.S. Census.

They lopped off a lot of eastern Hamilton County (including a whole lot of African-American voters) and stuck them in the Second Congressional District, where those Democratic voters would get swallowed up in the sea of Republicans in Clermont County and points east.

And then, the legislators, in their redistricting gave Chabot all of Warren County, one of the fastest growing counties in the state and a place where Republicans dominate politics to the point where Democrats often don't bother to field candidates in local races.

Last year, Trump won 66 percent of the vote in Warren County.

Chabot bettered that – he took 74 percent of the Warren County vote.

Young had 26 percent of the vote in Warren County; and nearly 48 percent of the Hamilton County vote. Chabot had 52 percent.

Warren County sits there atop the First Congressional District like Jabba the Hutt, waiting for its chance to squash any Democratic candidates who come along.

Could a candidate like Portune, Sittenfeld or Reece win Hamilton County – a county which is becoming increasing "blue" – and cut into Chabot's GOP vote enough in Warren County to upend Chabot.

We'll see. The ball's in the DCCC's court.