Democratic Reps. Kucinich and Kaptur brace for House survival showdown

If you’re looking for a dramatic tale of rivalry and desperation to get you through the cold winter months, look no further than the House race in Ohio’s 9th congressional district.

He’s an eccentric two-time presidential candidate, a liberal bastion in the House, known for his pacifist views and a proclivity for survival against all political odds.

She’s a tremendously popular 18-term congresswoman and the longest-serving female in the House, who boldly stood up to her party on abortion and trade.

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Only one will survive the March primary.

The winner could take on a man with no political experience but a national brand after being dubbed “Joe the Plumber” by the McCain-Palin campaign four years ago.

Democratic Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur have represented neighboring Ohio districts for years and are by all accounts friends. But a Republican-controlled redraw of the state’s congressional maps in 2011 merged their two districts along Lake Erie’s shore, pitting them in direct competition for the same seat.

Kucinich initially flirted with the idea of running in Washington state instead, but opted to square off with Kaptur and take his chances. The initial map gave him the advantage, because it included more of the current Cleveland-area constituents who have been reelecting him for years.

“These are wild times in Ohio,” said Joe Cimperman, a Cleveland City Councilman who gave Kucinich a run for his money in 2008 when he challenged him in the Democratic primary. “I think they’re going to give this constituency the best congressional race they’re ever going to see.”

Both Kucinich and Kaptur are war horses and work horses with loyal supporters, Cimperman said, and would do whatever it takes to defend their spot in the House.

“These guys don’t slouch. They’re working on Sundays. They’re constantly out there,” he said.

Last-minute fine-tuning to the map in December brightened prospects for Kaptur by adding almost 100,000 of her current Toledo-area constituents to the new district. She now has fewer new voters to introduce herself to than Kucinich.

That led to some musing by Democrats in Ohio that Kucinich would bail on the district and challenge another incumbent, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), in her majority-minority district. Fudge already faces a primary challenge from Nina Turner, a prominent state senator, and if the two split the African-American vote, Kucinich could sweep the remaining vote and snag the nomination.

“He’s going to do whatever he thinks is best for him,” said an Ohio Democratic strategist. “He doesn’t care about any other incumbent Democrat, whether it’s Marcy or Fudge or anyone else.”

Kucinich and his campaign did not respond to several requests for comment.

But Bill Burges, a Cleveland political consultant in Cleveland not affiliated with any candidate, said it would be riskier for Kucinich to run against Fudge, as his core base is now in the 9th district, where Kaptur will be running.

Plus, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, Chris Redfern, has endorsed Fudge’s reelection campaign, a party spokesman said Wednesday. Redfern has stayed neutral in the 9th district, and has no plans of getting involved.

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All signs indicate that a Kaptur-Kucinich face-off is inevitable, and the battle lines are already being drawn. Kaptur has steered clear of attacking her colleague-turned-opponent so far, but is clearly telegraphing a plan to play the more pragmatic, results-oriented alternative to Kucinich’s idealism.

“My ability to reach consensus and to work with a broad range of interests toward achieving very specific goals for our region and for the country,” Kaptur said of what would differentiate her from the man from Cleveland.

But with more than 300,000 new voters to meet before early voting starts at the end of January, Kaptur isn’t taking any chances.

Asked to confirm an account that she was spending four to five hours per day calling voters and potential donors, Kaptur didn’t respond directly, but observed that she would have to advertise on television in Cleveland, where it costs many times more for ad time than in Toledo.

“My goal is to use the people who know me from my current district to introduce me to the new people, as well as my own shoe leather, which is how I’ve always campaigned,” Kaptur told The Hill.

Kaptur said her responsibilities in the House, where she serves on both the Budget and Appropriations committees, was consuming much of her time, but that when in Ohio, she is planting herself in the new part of the district, and calling elected officials, interest group and ward leaders.

For Kucinich, the best bet could be to play to his time-tested strengths: the principled believer who occasionally bucks convention, the dutiful advocate for his constituents, the underdog who won’t be defeated.

“Cockroaches will be dead. This guy will still be in Congress,” said another Ohio strategist.

And the fun won’t stop with the primary in March. Now that two coastal Democratic districts have been herded into one, Democrats should have no problem holding the seat. But at least two Republicans will compete in the GOP primary, and one of them has name recognition exceeding even that of Kucinich.

Anointed “Joe the Plumber” in 2008 by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), Samuel Joe Wurzelbacher became the GOP’s shorthand for blue-collar Americans struggling within a downtrodden economy. He says he worked as a plumber in the U.S. Air Force, but isn’t licensed in Ohio.

But Wurzelbacher has spent the years since President Obama’s election carrying the conservative mantle, and he offered a prediction about how the other party’s primary would play out.

“Marcy Kaptur and Kucinich essentially beating up on each other,” Wurzelbacher said. “People are tired of seeing that. They’re tired of the dirt and the slander and the mud.”

But Wurzelbacher, who has no electoral or managerial experience, will have to convince voters he’s up to the task and is a serious contender for federal office.

Lucky for him, anti-incumbent sentiment is running high this time around, and the same anti-Washington playbook will be equally effective against either Kaptur or Kucinich.

“Any more experience just means more experience in screwing the American taxpayer,” Wurzelbacher said.