Five years ago, Rep. Dennis Kucinich called himself “the president” of Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s fan club.
He should have resigned that title a few months ago.
The tenor between the two Ohio Democrats, once allies and now opponents, became increasingly ugly in the final weeks before the Super Tuesday primary — the first of 13 projected Member-vs.-Member races this cycle.
Their contest is symbolic of a unique problem among the 22 incumbents running in Member-vs.-Member primaries this cycle: How do you run against someone who has the same job and, in many cases, votes almost exactly like you?
The race often gets personal and nasty, recalled Michigan Rep. John Dingell, the dean of the House and victor of two Democratic primaries against fellow Members in 1964 and 2002.
“Both were nasty primaries,” Dingell recalled. “They were primaries between two people who were largely in agreement, which means it tends to be [about] personalities [for] our friends and supporters.”
There are more Member-vs.-Member primaries this year than any redistricting cycle in at least the past 30 years. There are seven Democratic Member-vs.-Member primaries and four Republican Member-vs.-Member primaries expected this year.
The result is often unexpected contests between former friends or longtime foes.
“When you sit in [a] Caucus with someone for 15 or 20 years, you come to know their son’s and daughter’s names,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said. “There’s a familial relationship that’s established that often times we take for granted until these kinds of races occur.”
In recent debates, Kaptur and Kucinich squabbled like siblings, stretching to point out their differences.
Kucinich accused Kaptur’s campaign of stealth yard-sign thievery. Kaptur accused Kucinich of criticizing her hometown in one of his radio advertisements that proclaimed “maybe in Toledo politics, facts don’t matter.”
“It’s a totally different world when you have to go into a new media market, especially when you go into a totally new media market that your opponent has represented for decades,” said Kaptur media adviser David Heller, who also worked on Kucinich’s 1996 bid. “It’s really a great test of a consultant’s abilities.”
In nearby southwestern Pennsylvania, the Democratic primary between Reps. Jason Altmire and Mark Critz also took a more negative tone during the past couple of weeks.
Critz attempted to oust Altmire from the ballot for invalid signatures on his nominating petitions. A state judge ruled Monday that Altmire can stay on the primary ballot, but Critz will likely appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
After the Ohio primary, GOP Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Don Manzullo will be the next Members to face off in Illinois on March 20. The Altmire-Critz primary will be decided April 24.
Later this year, other Democratic Members will run against each other: Reps. William Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan in Missouri, Reps. Gary Peters and Hansen Clarke in Michigan, Reps. Steven Rothman and Bill Pascrell in New Jersey, Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman in California, plus Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson, also in California.
Fundraising also presents a challenge for these Members, who must ask donors to take sides against their party colleague. Democratic fundraiser Mike Fraioli, who consults for three Democrats entrenched in tough primaries against fellow party Members, argued it’s yet another factor that makes these types of races unusual.
“In many respects, their donors are put in a position of having to choose among friends,” Fraioli said. “You have to be prepared to make the case why you’re the candidate who belongs in this district. It’s like, ‘Yeah, we like you both. Now what?’”
In 2002, there were eight sets of Member-vs.-Member races: two Republican primaries, two Democratic primaries and four general election fights.
Two years later, in 2004, after Texas redrew its Congressional map a second time, Rep. Pete Sessions (R) defeated then-Rep. Martin Frost (D) in another Member-vs.-Member race.
A decade later, these races might still be a sore subject for some of the Member-vs.-Member primary alumni.
Dingell’s 2002 opponent, ex-Rep. Lynn Rivers, did not respond to a request for interviews on this topic. Former Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) declined to talk about his 2002 primary race against then-Rep. Bob Barr through an intermediary and Barr did not respond to an interview request.
Indiana insiders speculated former Rep. Brian Kerns (R) moved out of state after his 2002 primary loss to then-Rep. Steve Buyer. Kerns couldn’t be reached for comment, and Buyer also declined an interview on this topic through an intermediary.
The other pair of primary foes from the 2002 cycle, Democratic Reps. John Murtha and Frank Mascara, died in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
While there haven’t always been as many Member-vs.-Member primaries as this cycle, these races have long had a reputation for turning into some of the ugliest contests.
Former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) recalled a particularly nasty 1982 contest between Republican Reps. Gary Lee and George Wortley in upstate New York. Wortley was smaller in stature than Lee, and accordingly, Weber remembers Lee’s theme for the race as “beat the wimp.” The theme didn’t work and Wortley won.
“Academic politics is so vicious because so little is at stake,” Weber said. “It’s like that with Members of the same party. We’re not fighting about big issues. We get personal.”
But there might be hope for Kaptur and Kucinich following the primary, after the ugliness of the past few weeks is forgotten.
Dingell called Rivers his “friend” and said he often appears on her radio show.
“We’ve talked and visited since, and I think, as much as we can be, we’ve sought to it that our relationship has been mended,” Dingell said. “We’ve been friends before, and we are friends again.”
Maybe Kucinich will take up the reins of the Kaptur fan club again depending on who wins the primary.