By Aaron Blake - 01/12/10 12:52 AM EST
Few candidates running for Congress in 2010 know the perils of upsetting the conservative base better than Steve Stivers.
The pro-abortion-rights, centrist Republican lost by less than 1 percent in 2008, while two conservative third-party candidates took 9 percent of the vote. So now Stivers, in his second campaign against Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio), is making more of an effort to reach out.
The former state senator has made building inroads with tea party groups and anti-abortion-rights communities a priority this time around. Though he insists he’s still running as a center-right candidate, he appears more apt in 2010 to play up the “right” portion of that equation.
Stivers recently filled out a questionnaire for a local 912 Project group that lays out some of his more conservative leanings. On the form, Stivers criticizes cap-and-trade legislation and praises the Stupak amendment that puts greater restrictions on abortion funding.
He also advocates for taking away the voter’s right to elect a U.S. senator and returning that power to state legislatures. Stivers acknowledged that repealing the 17th Amendment isn’t really a priority right now, but he said he sympathizes with its federalist underpinnings.
“For some people, it’s a states’-rights issue,” he said. “I think that’s why they asked the question, and I’d certainly be willing to go back to what our Founding Fathers set up, as far as checks and balances in our republic in our bicameral legislature.”
During the course of the seven-page survey, Stivers also “disagrees” with the statement that global warming is a scientific fact and that catastrophe will ensue if carbon emissions aren’t lowered. In addition, he suggests that any of the federal departments not mandated under the Constitution — everything except State, Defense, Justice and Treasury — could be eliminated to return to a “constitutionally pure government.”
About the only place on the questionnaire where Stivers might irritate the tea party groups is on abortion, where he checked a box saying he would support the procedure if the “health of the mother” is at stake.
Stivers, who is most often described as “pro-choice,” said that is the sticking point for many in the anti-abortion-rights community who don’t like him. But he emphasizes that he had a strong “pro-life” voting record as a state senator on the issue.
The main anti-abortion-rights group in the state, Ohio Right to Life, vouches for that. But it didn’t endorse Stivers in 2008, when he made no effort to seek its support.
This time around, Stivers is doing plenty of outreach to the group, and Ohio Right to Life Executive Director Mike Gonidakis is talking openly about supporting his candidacy.
“It was radio silence; no communication whatsoever,” Gonidakis said of 2008. “I can tell you that’s not the case this time around. … He’s definitely taking a different approach.”
Instead of backing Stivers last cycle, the group chose Independent Don Eckhart, in what might have been a death blow to Stivers’s bid.
Eckhart’s 4 percent take, alongside a Libertarian’s 5 percent, epitomizes what national Republicans fear could happen to some establishment candidates, including Stivers, in 2010. Already, a Ron Paul supporter, David Ryon, has stepped forward to challenge Stivers as a Constitution Party candidate.
Stivers acknowledged the loss of support in the anti-abortion-rights community cost him last time. He said he won’t be afraid to disagree and stay true to his beliefs, but he wants a line of communication to be open.
“I’m trying to reach out to folks from 70 degrees of each side, and the folks on both extremes probably are going to do what they’re going to do,” he said.
Stivers emphasized that he’s not a “right-wing nut” and suggested Democrats would use the questionnaire to make him out to be one. As Democrats confront one of their most difficult seats to hold in 2010, pushing Stivers to the right will be a priority. And they would be only too happy to have Ryon stir the pot.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spokeswoman Gabby Adler said Stivers is trying to have it both ways.
“He can’t call himself a moderate one moment and then take the most extreme, out-of-touch positions the next,” Adler said. “This dishonesty is exactly the type of phony behavior voters across the political spectrum disdain and roundly reject.”
Ryon has proven his ability to make a dent in Republican candidates, at least in the primary. In 2008, he took 10 percent in a head-to-head primary with Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio).
Kilroy defeated Stivers with less than 46 percent of the vote, giving her the lowest vote percentage among any Democrat who won. Republicans believe lower turnout among student voters in the district, which is home to The Ohio State University, should give them a better playing field in 2010.