Dem Reps. Kucinich and Kaptur face off in cycle's first redistricting showdown

The first redistricting-induced primary showdown of 2012 is proving that political battles can be nastiest when they are fought among friends.

Two Ohio Democrats — Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich — will be on the primary ballot on Tuesday, but only one will be left standing when the ballots are counted.

Unable to draw obvious and major policy distinctions — the two have been close allies in the House with similar voting records — Kucinich and Kaptur are trying anything they can think of to convince voters to end their opponent's career in the House.

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“They are running the campaigns of their lives,” said Joe Cimperman, a Cleveland city councilman who gave Kucinich a tough challenge in 2008. “I don’t know there's going to be any rabbits left in northeastern Ohio. They’ve pulled them all out of their collective hats.”

The GOP-controlled legislature drew Kaptur and Kucinich into one Democratic district after Ohio lost two seats due to slow population growth. Kucinich was delighted that his Cleveland-based district wasn’t dismantled altogether, but it was Kaptur who benefited from a last-minute change that added more of her current Toledo-area constituents to the new district’s boundaries.

Overshadowed by the presidential race, the primary between the two got off to a slow start, with Kaptur and Kucinich circling each other cautiously, each reluctant to take the first shot against a friend and fellow Democrat.

But as Tuesday’s election draws nearer, the tone has grown increasingly negative, with each new ad or statement pushing the envelope a bit further.

Kucinich charged Kaptur’s campaign with stealing his campaign signs out of supporters’ yards. Kaptur accused Kucinich of insulting her hometown in an ad that said that “maybe in Toledo politics, facts don't matter."

Kucinich has also knocked Kaptur for voting to fund continued military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, while Kaptur has called attention to Kucinich’s ruminations about possibly running for the House in Washington state if redistricting in Ohio left him without a district.

In the latest twist, the two Democrats vied for who could turn out the biggest star power from Hollywood and GOP politics. Willie Nelson and Russell Simmons came out for Kucinich, while Kaptur touted the backing of Tom Hanks and of former presidential nominee Bob Dole — a Republican.

A two-time presidential candidate himself, Kucinich has weathered rough challenges and been written off many times before, but managed to claw his way to political survival. Political observers in Ohio said Kaptur appears better positioned to win the primary, but that anything could still happen in the final few days.

“I do think she's winning, but I expect Dennis to do something over the next couple days to try to knock her out of the lead,” said an Ohio Democratic strategist. “Something nasty.”

In one Kaptur radio ad that Kucinich’s campaign has called despicable and dishonest, she hits her rival for praising Jimmy Dimora, a former county commissioner now on trial in Ohio for racketeering. Kucinich’s campaign pointed out that he routinely honors constituents from his district — hundreds per year — by entering their names in the congressional record.

“You have to ask yourself whether this race is a lot closer than anybody thinks, or whether Kaptur’s people smell blood and understand that she could put him away,” said Bill Burges, a Cleveland political consultant.

Burges pointed out that Kaptur must have data to back her decision to use such an odd line of attack against a politician with such obvious vulnerabilities; Kucinich is one of the most liberal members of the House, and has faced criticism for focusing too much on his national profile.

“With Dennis, there are 27 things you can deal with. He keeps running for president, he obviously wants to get out of here,” said Burges. “So this must have been poll-driven.”

With 14 terms under her belt, Kaptur holds the distinction of being the longest-serving woman in the House. Added to that on Friday was another distinction — that of the most senior Democrat on the all-powerful Appropriations Committee. That committee’s ranking member, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), announced plans to retire on Friday, and Kaptur said she would seek the top slot on the committee if she wins her primary against Kucinich.

“I think that it would be an extraordinarily important step for a Great Lakes member to rise to chair that committee,” Kaptur told The Hill.

A third Democrat, businessman Graham Veysey, is also in the primary, and while there is little chance he will outperform two incumbent members of Congress, there is also uncertainty about whether he will siphon more votes away from Kaptur or Kucinich.

The winner of the primary will likely face Republican Samuel Wurzelbacher, better known as “Joe the Plumber” from his role in the 2008 presidential race. But Wurzelbacher’s support from former GOP hopeful Herman Cain has done little to help him establish himself as a serious candidate, and he has been unable to raise large sums of money for his campaign.

—Jeremy Herb contributed.

This story was posted at 7:00 p.m. and has been updated.