Renegade primary challenger muddles Republicans’ efforts to unseat Schmidt

A Republican former county commissioner this week announced he is preparing to challenge Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) in next year’s primary, but his entry could hurt anti-Schmidt GOPers in their quest to unseat her.

Republicans said the surprise announcement of former Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich could help Schmidt by setting up a multi-candidate primary, as her main opposition force is divided.

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He stated his intentions Wednesday in an e-mail to supporters that blindsided local Republicans, who characterized it as a power move.

Schmidt won less than 50 percent of the vote in the primary in 2006 and narrowly survived in the general election as well, defeating Democrat Victoria Wulsin 50-49. Wulsin is running again and starting her campaign 10 months earlier.

Schmidt’s plurality primary win indicates her GOP opposition would be well served to unite behind one candidate, but Heimlich’s entry appears to compromise that goal severely.

The Cincinnati-based Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) is the leading anti-Schmidt group; it vehemently opposed her in 2005 and 2006 and has been a strong supporter of Heimlich. The group declined to line up behind him yesterday, citing one of its founder’s interest in running.

State Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. (R), who formed the group in 1999 with attorney Christopher Finney, said yesterday that he will not yield to Heimlich. Other possible candidates include 2006 gubernatorial nominee Ken Blackwell and Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, as well as podiatrist and Iraq war veteran Brad Wenstrup.

In a statement, COAST’s chairman vowed to defeat Schmidt in the primary and said Heimlich “has a stellar record on tax and spending issues dating to his very first day in public office.” But he cited Brinkman’s possible candidacy and demurred.

“As a result, until the final primary field is identified, who COAST will endorse in opposition to Ms. Schmidt is unknown,” the chairman, Jim Urling, said. He added that the group “desires a unified opposition” to Schmidt.
Schmidt Chief of Staff Barry Bennett said Heimlich is not much of a threat and cited his county commission reelection loss to a Democrat in 2006. Hamilton County is a Republican stronghold.

“That’d be great if they both ran,” Bennett said. “Phil Heimlich is just not a candidate that people will be able to unite behind. He’s unemployed and unpopular. And he wants to run. Well, we welcome him to the race.”

Heimlich said he has raised $120,000, while Schmidt raised little in the first quarter, and he suggested that voters would give him a chance to bounce back from his loss last year.

He said he and Brinkman have been “close friends” over the years, but declined to elaborate on the strategy of the primary.

Heimlich also said he did not intend to go public with any announcements and was just informing supporters of his intentions and that he was filing with the Federal Election Commission.

“I have great respect for Tom and great love for Tom,” Heimlich said. “I think he’s done a great job in standing up for school vouchers and a whole host of issues. But I think for me now, I want to focus on what I bring to the table.”

In a statement, Brinkman said it is too early to be talking about the primary.

“The time to decide what I will do will be in the fall when the Buckeyes are marching towards the national championship,” Brinkman said. “I was unaware of Phil’s plan, but it will not influence my decision one way or another.”

Meanwhile, Wulsin appears set to capture her second straight Democratic nomination. She started later and received little help from the national party in 2006, but still nearly beat Schmidt in one of the closest races in the country.

She raised about $1 million for the race and said she’s focusing almost solely on fundraising at this point, not even hiring a campaign manager.

She suggested that a primary could help Schmidt by focusing her attention before the general election and making her a stronger candidate.

“To me, it sort of goes both ways,” Wulsin said. “It’ll certainly be more interesting.”

In August 2005, Schmidt narrowly defeated Democratic Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett in a special election to replace former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who left the seat to become United States Trade Representative.
Schmidt won the GOP nomination with 31 percent of the vote in the special primary, outpacing a field that included Brinkman and former Sen. Mike DeWine’s (R-Ohio) son, Pat DeWine.

Former Rep. Bob McEwen (R-Ohio), who finished second in 2005 with 26 percent, ran again in 2006 and took 43 percent of the vote, losing by five points while two other candidates took the remainder.

Despite the close general election results, the district has long been starkly Republican, with President Bush taking 63 and 64 percent of the vote in his two election wins.

Schmidt’s verbal gaffes have cost her, including suggesting Vietnam Veteran Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) was a coward and that the recent scandal at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was “overblown.”