They have served a combined 46 years in the House of Representatives, ethnic Catholic liberals born four months apart representing districts along their state’s northern border.
But now, redistricting in Ohio, drawn up by a Republican-led General Assembly, has left two powerhouse liberal Democrats, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, battling for one seat in the state’s redrawn 9th District.
The district covers a narrow, 100-mile slice of Lake Erie shoreline from Cleveland’s blue-collar suburbs to Toledo.
With time ticking toward the March 6 Democratic primary, the congressional veterans are in the political fight of their lives. Their race is among the most notable between incumbents in the wake of the 2010 census, which reflected population shifts and resulted in redistricting that has scrambled familiar political patterns across the country.
The thought of losing Mr. Kucinich, a quirky and charismatic former Cleveland mayor, or Ms. Kaptur, a onetime city planner and the House’s longest-serving female member, is a tough outcome for many Buckeye State Democrats.
Party leaders blame the GOP for targeting what they describe as two “progressive champions” in Washington.
“The Republicans in the Statehouse went to great lengths to draw a gerrymandered district and eliminate one of these fine public servants from office,” said Seth Bringman, communications director for the Ohio Democratic Party. “It’s a disservice to the citizens of Ohio.”
The candidates’ voting records are similar: Both are skeptical of free trade, are pro-union, and strongly support President Obama’s stimulus and health care programs.
Political observers say the redrawn district favors Ms. Kaptur, who has retained a greater percentage of her voting base in the northwest Ohio district.
Mr. Kucinich, who waged two unsuccessful bids for the presidency and who has been endorsed by Hollywood celebrities, faces the challenge of introducing himself to large numbers of Kaptur constituents. He retains a base of support from Cuyahoga County Democrats and has won the endorsement of such prominent liberals as retiring Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat.
Adding to the spectacle is one potential Republican candidate for the general election: Samuel Joe “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who found fame during the 2008 presidential campaign when he confronted candidate Barack Obama about taxes on small businesses.
Also in the race are Republican Steve Kraus and Democrat Graham Veysey, a Cleveland businessman who lacks the funds and name recognition of his two older rivals, but has already garnered attention beyond his district with a low-budget ad parodying the movie “Dumb and Dumber” to tout his long-shot candidacy. Republicans are given little chance, though, in a district expressly designed by state GOP leaders to confine as many Democrats as possible.
Mr. Kucinich and Ms. Kaptur describe themselves as friends, but they have taken to playing up stylistic and policy differences as the primary nears.
Ms. Kaptur touts her insider clout on Capitol Hill and her ability to get results without the media attention that the more colorful Mr. Kucinich has attracted.
“You run on what you’ve done,” she said in a recent meeting with the editorial board of the Toledo Blade. “I have something to show, real results. … Dennis is very good at headlines. What can he show that he’s done?”
Mr. Kucinich touches grander themes and visions, including his vocal criticism of the Iraq War and his plans for revitalizing the nation’s cities. “I’ve been relentless in challenging the status quo,” he said. “I’ve been a leader in developing a new industrial policy that will rebuild America.”
But it was Ms. Kaptur who recently won the coveted endorsement of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which said in its editorial that her opponent in the primary had “wandered far from northeast Ohio.”
Ohio political analysts say voters are being presented with a difficult decision about who they think will deliver more clout for the struggling area.
“It’s tough,” said Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck. “I would think Marcy Kaptur stands a better chance than Dennis Kucinich because they could attack Kucinich as more to the left, as they could her. She’s had a lot of labor support.”
In fundraising through December, Ms. Kaptur reported more than $706,000 in her campaign coffers compared with Mr. Kucinich’s $121,000, Federal Election Commission reports released last week show. But Mr. Kucinich outpaced his rival in donations during the year’s last quarter, raising $167,388 to Ms. Kaptur’s $143,816.
Most of her donors were from political action committees and Ohio-based organizations, the FEC report shows, while Mr. Kucinich, with a greater national profile, raised money primarily from out-of-state donors. Country music legend Willie Nelson, a longtime friend, played at a Kucinich fundraiser in Lorain last month, even though local Democratic officials have endorsed Ms. Kaptur. Mr. Kucinich has been endorsed by Cuyahoga Democratic leaders, representing his power base in Cleveland, his old district stomping grounds.
Both candidates face the hurdle of expensive advertising in two markets: Cleveland and Toledo. They will face off Feb. 22 at a roundtable candidate forum sponsored by the Coalition for Hispanic/Latino Issues and Progress.
The thrice-married Mr. Kucinich, 65, has been a member of the House of Representatives since 1997. He is the eldest of seven children from a Catholic family and began his political career in his early 20s. Ms. Kaptur, also 65, has been a member of Congress since 1983. She served as a policy adviser in the Jimmy Carter administration and is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Political observers are watching the Ohio battle closely. No matter the winner of the primary, a Democrat is likely to keep the 9th District seat in Congress, Mr. Beck said.
“I think it’s a district that is going to probably lean in the Democratic direction,” he said of the general election. “It’s probably one of maybe four districts in the state that Democrats have an advantage in. It’s likely that whoever gets the nomination is going to carry that in the fall.”