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How Rep. Steve Austria Became a Sacrificial Republican

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Rep. Steve Austria's seat was eliminated by Ohio's Legislature, which was tasked with cutting two seats as it redrew the state's lines.

When the Ohio Legislature was tasked with eliminating two Congressional seats with the decennial redistricting, the delegation was on notice. And with Republicans holding a 13-5 advantage, one of their own was likely to be on the chopping block.

How Rep. Steve Austria got the short end of the stick was the result of a last-minute deal that came together on Dec. 14, the last day of the Ohio House’s 2011 session.

But in Washington, D.C., Ohio’s delegation was panicking, lobbying state Representatives by phone to kill the deal.

“My Members were coming up to me with sort of like this, ‘so-and-so called and said we shouldn’t vote for this. What are we going to do?’ And I said, ‘Turn off your cellphone. We’re voting for this now,’” said state Rep. Matt Huffman, the Republican Majority Floor Leader at the heart of negotiations.

Thirty-six hours earlier, Matt Szollosi, the No. 2 Democrat in the Ohio House, came to Huffman with an offer. “I think I can get the votes for 369,” he said, referring to the compromise Republicans floated in November that the chamber’s top Democrat, Armond Budish, worked to kill.

Budish was on vacation. So Huffman and Szollosi scrambled to iron out the details.

The November lines passed that day made concessions to Democrats, including consolidating Montgomery County. It also set lines that left Austria at a disadvantage.

A September map had pitted him against GOP Rep. Michael Turner, with the new district giving each a roughly 50-50 split on territory from their previous districts. It was, more-or-less, a fair fight, something Speaker John Boehner had told state lawmakers was a priority for him if the new map was going to force Republicans to run against each other.

The new map gave Turner a 70-30 edge, meaning it “essentially eliminated Steve Austria’s ability to get re-elected,” Huffman said.

Surprisingly, the state legislators did not stop to alert House Republicans of their plans.

Word got back anyway, leading to the furious phone maneuvering, but to no avail. The Ohio Legislature passed the plan with large majorities, leaving Austria with no good options.

“I’m sorry, Steve,” Boehner told Austria the next day at a meeting of the Ohio Congressional delegation at the Capitol. Boehner said he hadn’t been given a heads-up about the plan to pass the bill. Rep. Steven LaTourette, a top ally of Boehner’s, said he couldn’t even get his phone calls returned in the hours leading up to the vote.

Austria stayed silent during the meeting. About two weeks later, on Dec. 30, he announced he would not run.

“It was the toughest decision that I’ve ever had to make in my political career, not to run for re-election,” Austria told Roll Call in an interview. “I’m going to remain very active in politics.”

Turner, for his part, offered conciliatory words to Austria. “I know he is an honorable man and I wish him well in his retirement. I look forward to running for re-election and working to grow jobs in Southwest Ohio,” he said in a statement.

Behind the scenes, Boehner had indicated he didn’t like the final plan. But he hadn’t fought it tooth and nail, either.

“Speaker Boehner advised the Legislature that if a Republican Member was to be drawn into a district with another Republican Member, he preferred the lines create a fair primary contest. Ultimately, he respected the Legislature’s responsibility to act as it determined was best,” said Cory Fritz, a spokesman for Boehner.

The process could have gone another way.

A spreadsheet from early September, obtained through a public records request by Ohio political activist Jim Slagle, shows four options were under
consideration.

Boehner denied reports in July that his political team would try to target Rep. Jim Jordan, the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee who has sometimes caused headaches for GOP leadership. “The word retribution is not in my vocabulary,” he said.

Still, the spreadsheet shows Jordan’s political future was on the line. Two of the four options presented would have resulted in difficult races for him.

One option, which would have created a tough race between freshman Republican Reps. Bob Gibbs and Bill Johnson, gave Jordan a district that would have provided Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) 46 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election. Another would have pitted Jordan against Turner.

Huffman said the four options on the spreadsheet weren’t the only ones considered — or even crucial to the process.

Tom Whatman, Boehner’s top political aide, explained why the Austria-Turner matchup was preferable in an email to Thomas Niehaus, the Republican President of the Ohio Senate, that has not previously been made public.

Whatman’s rationale focused on the intricacies of the district lines and what would be best overall for Republicans.

“Turner\Austria makes the [Rep. Bob] Latta [(R)] and [Rep. Marcy] Kaptur [(D)]/[Rep. Dennis] Kucinich [(D)] districts possible. A Gibbs/Johnson district pushes population counterclockwise and forces 3 long east west districts for [Rep. Jean] Schmidt [(R)], Turner and Austria. In addition it makes it impossible to draw Latta w/ a good index because you can’t get enough good to offset the bad he takes from Lucas County. Therefore you cannot draw a Kaptur/Kucinich district,” Whatman wrote.

In other words, the map drawers were juggling a series of priorities, including wanting to pit Democrats Kaptur and Kucinich against each other.

He also addressed the Gibbs-Johnson proposal to force two of the Republican delegation’s freshman Members to run against each other.

“Putting two Members together in another region of the state merely because they are freshman that results in an overall worse map for Republicans in the state is simply not the right thing to do. Boehner is not happy about this but it is the tough decision that is the right thing for Republicans in the next decade,” Whatman wrote.

 Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.

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