Those who spent any time with Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH-9) this winter knew that she was not looking forward to the month of March. The Toledo area congresswoman had been paired in the same district with Ohio Democratic colleague Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH-10) by the newly minted GOP majority in the Buckeye State legislature as part of this year’s redistricting, and she was not looking forward to having to battle the combative Cleveland Democrat as prelude to defending her seat in November.
Dennis Kucinich has been a fixture and a colorful figure on the Cleveland political scene since the late 1960s. Some Clevelanders have had the chance to support Kucinich in campaigns for city council, mayor, Ohio secretary of state, governor, state senator, the U.S. Congress and the presidency in 2004 and 2008 during the course of a roller-coaster political career that has spanned 45 years.
For her part, Miss Kaptur’s political career, spent in the Toledo area, has been less colorful, but more careful than that of her Cleveland rival. First elected to Congress in 1982, Kaptur has steadily built support and seniority to become the longest-serving woman in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The 2010 Census made it clear that Ohio would lose two House seats to reapportionment. With Republicans gaining control of both Houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office that year, it was no surprise that Democrats in the Congressional delegation would be uneasy. The final redistricting plan to emerge from Columbus raised eyebrows this winter when two of the state’s most senior Democrats were both thrown into a battle for their political lives in the new Ninth CD.
Stretching all the way from Kaptur’s Toledo base in the west and hugging the Lake Erie shore all the way to Lorain and Kucinich’s Cleveland/Cuyahoga County political launching pad in the east, the district is the longest from end-to-end in Ohio. With more of Kaptur’s old district than Kucinich’s in the new CD, the voter history edge went to Kaptur in the early handicapping, but Kucinich supporters felt that as the more liberal of the two, he might have the edge with party activists and primary voters.
Kaptur, who hasn’t been seriously tested in some years in her heavily Democratic base, dusted off her campaign skills, showing remarkable energy in tirelessly reaching out to voters in the eastern reaches of the district where she was less well known. The final weeks the campaign took on a surreal atmosphere as Kucinich touted endorsements from country music icon Willie Nelson, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt and Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, none of whom live in Ohio.
By contrast, Kaptur captured the endorsements of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and former GOP Cleveland mayor, Ohio governor and U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R).
Adding to the campaign mayhem, Kaptur ran an ad in the Cleveland media market highlighting Kucinich’s musings about possibly moving to Washington state to run for Congress instead of Cleveland. Kaptur’s ad linked Kucinich to Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell and Cleveland Cavaliers/Miami Heat basketball superstar LeBron James as figures willing to turn their backs on Cleveland and Ohio by packing up and moving away.
While Tuesday night’s Romney-Santorum cliffhanger captured almost all the national media attention, Kaptur’s 56-40% drubbing of Kucinich may have the greater long-term consequences in Washington DC, if not Washington state. Late last week, the announcement that Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA-6) would not seek re-election created a third Democratic-leaning open House seat in the Evergreen State. Dicks’ retirement also will make Kaptur the most senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee come January if she wins re-election in the new, heavily Democratic Ninth CD.
It would be highly unusual for any Democrat to mount a challenge to Kaptur for the top spot, but it is not unprecedented for members to challenge each other for choice slots on major committees. Kaptur, after all, is no favorite of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Pelosi lieutenant Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY-18), for one, might be put up to such a run. A long-shot dream scenario for Pelosi might be for Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD-5) to give up his leadership post and reclaim his seniority on the Appropriations Committee, where he served before moving into the Capitol Building. Hoyer would then become chairman of the committee in the unlikely event the Democrats regained the House majority. That move would allow her to dispatch two rivals in one move, but such things are too much for even former Speakers to hope.
A more realistic view is that Kaptur will be the odds-on favorite to win the top Democratic spot on the Appropriations Committee when the next Congress convenes. She can look back and think that this whole chain of events all started with a momentous month of March.