PARMA, Ohio — There is one, and possibly only one, thing that Reps. Betty Sutton and Jim Renacci agree on: Voters in their new, oddly shaped congressional district will have a stark choice come fall, and the path to victory lies in simply introducing themselves.
The pair described their task in almost identical terms in separate interviews. Renacci, a Republican, said that the key is “making sure they know who we are and how we vote.” Sutton, a Democrat, said that her campaign must “make sure that people know who I am and what I’m not, and who my opponent is and who he’s not.”
The devil will be in the defining, of course, and in getting voters to listen.
The face-off between Sutton, a three-term House member, and Renacci, a freshman, is one of only two in the country between incumbents of different parties. It is on every top-10 list of competitive contests this year and will play out in the red-hot Cleveland media market. Ohio is a must-win battleground state for both presidential candidates, and the scene of a high-octane Senate race as well. It’s no wonder a Wells Fargo study found that nearly $18 million had already been spent on Cleveland-area TV ads by June 24—second only to Los Angeles.
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The House contest alone is going to be a high-dollar affair. So far, Sutton has commitments from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ($2 million) and the House Majority PAC and the Service Employees International Union ($1.4 million total), while the National Republican Congressional Committee says it will invest at least $1 million to help Renacci. A flood of super PAC money on both sides is inevitable.
A poll conducted recently for two Democratic groups shows Sutton holding her own with a statistically insignificant 3-point lead. But she’s trailing in the money race. For the quarter that ended on June 30, the Renacci campaign says it raised a half-million dollars and had $1.55 million on hand; Sutton raised less than $300,000 and had about $900,000 on hand.
Sutton is at a double disadvantage in the new district: It is less liberal than her current district, and 80 percent of the turf is new to her, while it is only about half-new to Renacci. Given the intensity of the presidential and Senate races, however, breaking through to voters may pose the most significant challenge to both candidates.
“It ought to be a somewhat easier sell for Renacci, if he can find a way to get his message to them. This is a very difficult environment in which to communicate,” says John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
If and when voters tune in, they’ll find a choice between two people who are almost perfect paradigms of their respective parties. Renacci, now 53, the son of a railroad worker and the first in his family to graduate from college, went on to start a nursing-home business, an auto dealership, and other businesses; last year, Roll Call ranked him the 11th-wealthiest member of Congress. Sutton, now 49, the youngest of six children of a boilermaker and a library clerk, went on to become a state legislator and a labor lawyer.
Their 2011 voting scores from interest groups reflect the gap between them. For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union gave Sutton a 100 percent rating and Renacci a zero. The socially-oriented Family Research Council awarded ratings of 90 percent to Renacci and 10 percent to Sutton.
Jobs, the economy, and President Obama are the campaign’s central issues, with the auto bailout at the top. Sutton, a prime mover of the 2009 “cash for clunkers” program, calls the bailout a “critical component” of reviving an industry vital to the U.S. economy and northern Ohio in particular. “We make world-class parts and world-class cars right in this district,” she said.
Renacci lost his Chevy dealership in Wadsworth due to the restructuring that the Obama administration required in return for bailing out General Motors. The 1,100 dealerships GM shut down also included one across the street from Renacci’s. “One hundred jobs in one small town,” he said. “These are human beings who were employed.”
The other issues in the race mirror the national narrative. Renacci and the national GOP stress Sutton’s votes for “Obamacare,” which they say is a jobs killer. Sutton criticizes Renacci for wanting to repeal the health care law’s benefits, such as the requirement that people can’t be turned down for insurance due to a preexisting condition. There are skirmishes over Medicare and competing narratives on GOP obstructionism in Washington.
Sutton likes to cite a remark that Renacci made to Ohio Republicans in January, as quoted in the West Life newspaper: “We’ve stopped the president from being able to do anything that he wanted to do. He’s not able to do anything now.” Renacci counters with a flattering New York Times article from late last year about a bipartisan breakfast club he founded with Rep. John Carney, D-Del.
As for Obama, Sutton is doing a careful balancing act. She appeared with him in Parma this month, saying it was a chance to connect with some of her new constituents, but added that she’s unlikely to attend the Democratic National Convention that runs the week of Sept. 3 in Charlotte, N.C. “I would anticipate that I will have things to do in the district,” she said. “I would be more inclined to be here with my people.”
Sutton points out that she did not go along with Obama on what she considered “bad trade deals” with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. In fact, she criticizes Renacci for voting yes on the deals, and for voting “repeatedly” to protect tax breaks for the rich and for the oil companies that ship jobs overseas.
Job outsourcing and offshore tax havens are pillars of the Democratic assault against Mitt Romney, suggesting the presumptive GOP nominee might not be an unalloyed asset for Renacci. But, citing their shared background, Renacci says he will be at the GOP convention in Tampa. “I’m a business guy. It was very easy for me to endorse Governor Romney,” Renacci said.
Lurking in the background of the race are issues of character, including Sutton’s dismal staff turnover rate (highest in the House between the third quarters of 2009 and 2011, the Sunlight Foundation found), and an ongoing FBI investigation into possibly illegal contributions to Renacci. But those seem unlikely to shape a race hinging almost entirely on the state of the economy and on who can cut through the din in a presidential year.
This story is part of a continuing series. The National Journal Big 10 will focus on the more important and representative races in the House and Senate this year. The composition of the Big 10 may change as circumstances warrant.