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Challenges To GOP Congressional Incumbents All Come From The Right

Ohio's congressional districts lean heavily toward the GOP.

Ohio’s congressional map – as it is currently drawn – has made things easier for Republicans – easier still for incumbent Republicans. But three of those incumbent Republicans are facing challenges from the right in this month’s primary. Donald Trump, turnout, and the Tea Party are likely play a role in each race.

Election margins have been comfortable for all three incumbents: Bob Gibbs, Brad Wenstrup and Dave Joyce. In fact Gibbs – whose 7th district meanders from within a hairs-breadth of Lake Erie down past Coshocton – had no competition in the primary or the general election in 2014. And the political map shows most of Ohio – including their three districts -- remains a deep, solid red.

But the congressman representing the northeast corner of the state -- Dave Joyce -- has been a Tea Party target since he was appointed to replace Steve LaTourette (an even bigger Tea Party target) in 2013. And now Gibbs and southwestern Ohio representative Wenstrup have joined him.

The tea party says this is no time for compromise
“We’re in trouble. We’re 20 trillion dollars in debt. We’ve got a lot of problems in our country and we don’t need to go along to get along,” says Tom Zawistowski. He’s been backing tea party candidates for a range of offices, from Republican central committeeman to – well -- to the three congressional challengers.

They are retired postal worker Jim Lewis, truck driver and real estate agent Terry Robertson and former state lawmakerMattLynch. Each says he is the true conservative and each espouses what Zawistowski sees as simple common sense.

“Government’s job isn’t to help you. It’s to get out of your way and create a fair market place so you can help yourself.”

The real conservative
The challengers oppose gay marriage, abortion, Common Core, Obama care.

Then again, so do the incumbents. But the challengers boast they’re the real conservatives. That’s the core of Matt Lynch’s campaign against Dave Joyce.

Begins one ad: “I’m tired of these phony Republicans that spend millions of dollars trying to convince you they’re conservative, then go to Washington and vote with the Democrats like liberals. ...”

Which leads to ads with comebacks from Joyce – whom Lynch is challenging for the second time.

“In Congress, I’ve been fighting for a few simple things. Secure our borders, no amnesty and everyone plays by the same rules...”

Besides the Tea Party, conservative radio and conservative scorecards ;are coming into play in the races.

The map rules
The fight to the right is no surprise, says Ohio State political scientist Richard Gunther – thanks to the way Ohio’s GOP lawmakers drew the congressional map after the 2010 Census.

He says voters who cast ballots in primary elections – even in presidential years – are usually less than half the registered voters. And where the districts lean heavily one way or the other, voters are often more hardened in their positions.

So “you cannot make a credible case that appearing to be more moderate in a primary would be an electoral advantage.”

Democrats in Ohio also are in overwhelmingly safe districts. Just a lot fewer of them – four. That’s compared to the 12 districts held by Republicans.

A lesson from Virginia?
But map makers in at least one other state saw their similar political skills come back to haunt them.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor – who came to office on a Tea Party wave -- lost his seat in Virginia in 2014 to a little known, little funded challenger from the right.

Gunther says there’s likely one significant difference.

“Clearly he was a national target. And so under those circumstances, you had an infrastructure through the talk media that would mobilize voters against him. I think that most of our Ohio candidates are sufficiently under the radar that they don’t run the same risk. Although, in primary elections, they’re facing a different kind of electorate than they would in a general election.”

The Trump turnout

And Gunther is among those who see a potential dynamic at play in 2016 that wasn’t around in Cantor’s day: Donald Trump.

Michael Li with the Brennan Institute – which is advocating for redistricting reform – says Trump could well have an impact in the March 15 primary beyond his own presidential race.

“These are people who are true warriors and they’ll go in the ballot box and vote against incumbents. And I think that’s a dynamic we could really see—particularly in a year where you have somebody who’s the insurgent-in-chief driving people to the polls.”

Early voting numbers released this week show a surge in people asking for Republican ballots. Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges – who is fighting Trump’s presidential run – says the congressional incumbents recognize the dynamic, have reached out to the voters they need to,   and predicted every incumbent will win. The Tea Party’s Tom Zawistowski is betting otherwise.