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Even With A 'Blue Wave,' Ohio Democrats Still Longshots In House Races

Danny O'Connor

In west Dayton, Democratic congressional contender Theresa Gasper spent a recent Saturday afternoon shaking hands and chatting in a string of black-owned barber shops and salons.

The first-time candidate faces GOP Rep. Mike Turner, a former Dayton mayor seeking his ninth term in the 10th House District. He got 64 percent of the vote in 2016. She agreed she's a longshot, but added: "My mom always told me to go big or go home."

It appears likely that Ohio's congressional delegation will remain at status quo: 12 Republicans and four Democrats in the House. But for the first time since GOP-controlled remapping of the districts took effect in 2012, there are at least multiple challengers who still have hope heading into Election Day. Percentage victory margins in Ohio's 2016 House races ranged from nearly 60 percent to 80 percent.

In central Ohio's 12th District, Franklin County Recorder Danny O'Connor, a Democrat, is in a tight rematch with former GOP state Sen. Troy Balderson, who won a nail-biter special election in August to finish Pat Tiberi's term after the Republican resigned.

O'Connor has continued to do well in fund-raising and some national forecasters call the race a toss-up. But Republicans, including current Gov. John Kasich, have held the district for more than 35 years. GOP President Donald Trump won it in 2016 by more than 10 points.

Democrats had high hopes in southwest Ohio's 1st House district, after Aftab Pureval emerged as a rising star with a major local upset in 2016 for Hamilton County clerk of courts. Challenging GOP Rep. Steve Chabot, Pureval has drawn national Democratic support, millions in campaign funds, and extra attention as the son of immigrants from India.

Pureval says it's time for change and new ideas in Washington. In a recent debate, Chabot, 65, called Pureval, 36, a "handsome guy" with "a great smile." Chabot, seeking a 12th term, described their race as between a show horse and himself, a workhorse.

Pureval's campaign has been beset by miscues, leading to the final-week ouster of his campaign manager and other staffers.

Elsewhere, Democratic candidates are hoping for a "blue wave" of politically energized women and other voters repulsed by Trump's rhetoric and style.

"I think there are a lot of people with buyer's remorse," Gasper said, referring to Trump.

East of Cincinnati, first-time candidate Jill Schiller has stayed energetic against third-term Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup in the 2nd House district. She cites lagging economic progress in the district's Appalachian counties, where voters haven't had much of a choice in recent elections.

"I think this district has been overlooked for a very long time," she said.

Rod Sommer, 78, a retired military veteran in Cincinnati, complained about Republican gerrymandering and said he was voting for Schiller.

"I think she's a breath of fresh air," he said.

Wenstrup said he's running on his record and can't worry about an anti-Trump wave.

"You see people who are voting because they love Trump and you see people voting because they don't like Trump," Wenstrup said. "So we'll see how this plays out."

Wenstrup, who earned a Bronze Star as an Army combat surgeon in Iraq, was credited by GOP Rep. Steve Scalise with likely saving his life with first aid when Scalise was shot in 2017 while Republicans practiced for the annual congressional softball game.

Robert Williams, 56, of Cincinnati, said he likes Pureval, but he's in Wenstrup's district.

"He's a good guy," Williams said of Wenstrup. "I'm a Democrat, but I like Wenstrup."

Other races where Democrats see hope if a wave breaks their way: central Ohio's 15th District, where Republican incumbent Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, faces Rick Neal, a long-time activist; and eastern Ohio's 7th District, where Republican Rep. Bob Gibbs faces Ken Harbaugh, a Navy pilot and former president of a veterans training organization.

Shanikka White, 35, owner of Nicole's Salon in Trotwood, near Dayton, said she appreciated getting attention from Gasper, who was accompanied by Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

"I think it helps a lot," she said. "It makes us a feel a little more important."