Ohio Primaries: Two Incumbents Fall, But Beware of the Anti-Incumbent Hype

Jessica Taylor March 7, 2012 · 1:54 PM EDT

Republican cartographers guaranteed that one incumbent would lose in Tuesday’s primaries in Ohio when they drew two Democratic Members into the same district. But few people expected Republicans to lose one of their own.

In the 9th District, Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur handily defeated her colleague, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, 56 percent to 40 percent, in the cycle’s first incumbent vs. incumbent battle.

But in a surprise, Rep. Jean Schmidt was defeated in the GOP primary by newcomer Brad Wenstrup, 49 percent to 43 percent, in the 2nd District.

Schmidt has her critics, but Army physician Wenstrup waged a relatively quiet campaign against the congresswoman. Through the middle of February, Wenstrup had spent just $142,000 to Schmidt’s $463,000. Wenstrup ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Cincinnati in 2009 and has never held elective office.

While some observers will misread Schmidt’s loss as evidence of some brewing anti-incumbent wave, the three-term lawmaker has had mediocre primary performances ever since she won an Aug. 2005 special election to succeed now-Sen. Rob Portman.

In 2010, Schmidt won renomination with 62 percent in a four-way race. She garnered 58 percent and 48 percent in her 2008 and 2006 primaries. Redistricting also can’t be discounted as a factor in her loss yesterday. Over a quarter of the redrawn 2nd District was new to Schmidt.

Overall, it’s important to note that some incumbents lose in primaries every cycle, and more incumbents lose in redistricting cycles. In 2002, the best cycle to compare to 2012, eight incumbents lost in primaries. More recently, four incumbents lost primaries in 2010, three in 2008, and two each in 2006 and 2004.

In the Kaptur-Kucinich slugfest, a loser was inevitable. It’s not a surprise that the liberal icon was the first casualty of this cycle’s redistricting battles, but Kaptur’s margin of victory was larger than expected.

While there’d been no polling to back up the hunch that Kaptur was the favorite, she currently represents about half of the new 9th, with about 10 percent new to both Members. Kucinich needed to rack up large margins in his Cleveland base in Cuyahoga county. While he was strong there, winning 73 percent, Kaptur’s dominant showing of over 94 percent on her Lucas County (Toledo) home turf was far too much to overcome, and she narrowly won in the newly-added Lorain County, by about four points. Kaptur also had incredibly strong margins in the portions of Erie and Ottawa County she’d represented before to deny Kucinich a path to victory.

Speculation will turn now to what the former presidential candidate will do next. While Kucinich had flirted with running in Washington state when it looked like his district would be eliminated all together in redistricting, that still remains an unlikely scenario. Even if he tried, it’s unlikely the move would be warmly received by either state or national Democrats.

Kaptur will now face Republican Joe Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. “Joe the Plumber” in the general election, who won the GOP primary with 51.5 percent. Wurzelbacher had fifteen minutes of fame after then-Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin made him part of her stump speech in 2008. Wurzelbacher will try to grab headlines, but this one will still easily go to Kaptur in a district where John McCain struggled to top 30 percent in 2008.

In the other closely watched race of the evening, Democrat Joyce Beatty edged out former Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy to win the primary in the open 3rd District, 38 percent to 35 percent. The Columbus seat was essentially a new, Democratic seat created in redistricting by Republicans to shore up neighboring GOPers. Running in a solidly Democratic district, Beatty will be a prohibitive favorite in the fall.

An African-American former state House minority leader, Beatty was well known in the Columbus area, and Democratic observers say she’d been very effective at nabbing key local support (particularly the endorsement of Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman) and building a strong infrastructure. While Kilroy, who served one term in the more GOP-leaning 15th District before losing a 2010 rematch with Republican Steve Stivers, was well known in D.C., that didn’t translate back to the new district she’d chosen to run in.

Beatty’s likely win in the fall means Ohio will have two African-American female representatives in the 113th Congress, joining Rep. Marcia Fudge. Beatty’s victory would also legitimize the compromise African American legislators made with Republicans in order to pass a new congressional map that could not be challenged in court.

With the first-in-the-nation congressional primary in the books, campaigns will have the next eight months to prep their general election races -- but don’t expect there to be as many competitive races in the Buckeye State in 2012. Republicans picked up three seats in Ohio in 2010, but shored up several of their vulnerable incumbents through redistricting. Rothernberg Political Report rates only three races as competitive, and all are in the Lean Republican column.

The most closely-watched race in November will be another incumbent vs. incumbent battle, though this one will have partisan implications as Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton and Republican Rep. Jim Renacci will face off. Renacci has the early edge in the 16th District, but Sutton’s always proven to be a strong campaigner. Keep an eye on how this one develops over the next few months, but for now it’s likely to stay in GOP hands.

In the 6th District, GOP freshman Bill Johnson faces a rematch with former Democratic Rep. Charlie Wilson, whom he defeated 50 percent to 45 percent in 2010. Wilson won his primary with 82 percent of the vote, but his victory last night was a far cry from 2006, when he first ran for Congress and failed to gather 50 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Wilson and the DCCC put together an expensive write-in effort and he eventually won the nomination with 66 percent and the seat in November. But this district got about three points better for Johnson, and McCain won 53 percent here in 2008.

In the 7th District, first-term Republican Bob Gibbs saw his district get slightly worse, and he should expect a competitive race against Democrat Joyce Healy-Abrams. But the district still has an overall GOP advantage with McCain taking 50 percent and George W. Bush winning 55 percent. For now, Gibbs is still the favorite.

Nathan L. Gonzales contributed to this report.  

Update, March 8: Below are some examples of the direct mail pieces third-party groups used to target Schmidt in the campaign's closing weeks.