Her unexpected loss serves as a warning for many Members seeking re-election on new turf after redistricting or facing even the smallest political challenge. More importantly, Schmidt’s loss signals a still-unsettled electorate looking for a reason — any reason — to boot an incumbent from office.
“Jean has always had some tough races, but she’s always sort of hung on and won, so I guess I expected that again,” fellow Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan said Wednesday. “It just wasn’t on my radar screen.”
Jordan surmised that it’s too early to tell whether the loss should serve as a broader warning sign for incumbents this cycle.
“A lot of times, it’s the particulars of the race, but I think it’s always important for Republicans to do exactly what they told the voters they were going to do,” he said. “I don’t know if that played into the race or not, but it could have been more local, too. I just don’t know.”
Schmidt didn’t lose for any one factor. Instead, a perfect storm of ethics woes, new territory in her district, super PAC spending and voter agitation with her politics and personality contributed to her defeat.
In any case, she should have seen it coming, Ohio sources said Wednesday. Instead of campaigning Tuesday in the Buckeye State, Schmidt was in Washington, D.C., attending a morning Conference meeting at the Capitol Hill Club and voting in the afternoon. Meanwhile, her two Ohio colleagues embroiled in a race against each other — Democratic Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich — rushed around the 9th district until the polls closed.
“She’s always struggled,” Matt Parker, an Ohio Republican operative, said. “Rob Portman used to carry that district very handily when it was his, and she just always struggled.”
Wenstrup defeated Schmidt without running a single television ad — using only radio, direct mail and automated calls to reach voters. Wenstrup’s campaign manager, law student Brian Shrive, had never worked on a Congressional campaign before, except when he put together yard signs for Portman’s 1992 campaign while in high school.
But Wenstrup, an Iraq War veteran, turned out to be a better candidate than many initially gave him credit. He also hired Mark Weaver, a Columbus-based consultant who guided freshman Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) to victory in 2010.
He was well-known from his 2009 bid for Cincinnati mayor against an incumbent Democrat — a fool’s errand of a race for Republicans. But Wenstrup held the incumbent Mark Mallory to a surprisingly low 16-point margin of victory.
As a result, Wenstrup’s name identification remained high in Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is located. The surrounding area is a key base in Schmidt’s district.
Wenstrup not only defeated Schmidt in Hamilton County, but he also led her in her home of Clermont County by 2,500 votes. When Schmidt had tough primary challenges in the past, she was always able to pull out a victory with a strong showing in this area.
Wenstrup also had some outside help. The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a super PAC based in Texas, spent $49,000 on radio and automated calls blasting Schmidt.
Schmidt evidently took some notice of the campaign against her, and sources say she was on television the last several days of the primary. But it was too little, too late.
“Congresswoman Schmidt didn’t run a race quite frankly,” Shrive said. “She thought she had it in the bag and didn’t really campaign until the very end.”
Schmidt’s spokesman did not return a voice mail request for comment Wednesday, and the Congresswoman missed votes in the afternoon.
Wenstrup polled the race once in mid-February, Shrive said. The survey showed everything had to break their way in their campaign to win. So, night after night, Wenstrup went out to meet voters.
Meanwhile, Schmidt’s antagonists in the district beat the drum for her defeat, including the tea party group COAST. Schmidt’s recent run-in with the House Ethics Committee played a primary role in the tea party group’s argument to voters.
Schmidt’s ethical woes started when she accepted $500,000 worth of legal expenses from a Turkish-American interest group. The legal fees stemmed from several matters involving David Krikorian, the Democratic opponent in Schmidt’s previous bid for re-election.
Armed with a PowerPoint, Krikorian’s attorney, Christopher Finney, made the rounds to tea party meetings in Schmidt’s redrawn district in the weeks leading up to the primary with a presentation titled: “A Broken Ethics Process: A Case Study on Jean Schmidt.”
“When they realize the enormity of the problem and the obviousness of the violations, I literally have people coming up afterwards and thanking me for doing the speech,” Finney, a self-identified Republican, told Roll Call in February.
The Ethics Committee concluded in August that Schmidt should not face any sanctions. She was instead told to repay what the committee called an impermissible gift and disclose the sum on amended accounts of her personal finances.
But the damage was already done. The matter became a campaign talking point that Wenstrup and his allies regularly brought up around the 2nd district.
For Schmidt, it should have been just another clue she was in electoral trouble.
“You either run unopposed, or you run scared. And that’s a good lesson for candidates,” Parker said. “All candidates need to know that at all levels.”
Richard E. Cohen and Jessica Brady contributed to this report.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.