Rep. Betty Sutton is in a tight Member-vs.-Member race for the state’s 16th district against her Republican rival, Rep. Jim Renacci.
MEDINA, Ohio — Parking officer Bud Haynes can’t be bothered to remember any candidates he watches on local television commercials anymore.
“I counted 12 in a half-hour a couple days ago,” Haynes, 78, said while on a coffee break from chalking tires in the town square here Tuesday morning.
As a result, Haynes doesn’t know much about Reps. Jim Renacci (R) or Betty Sutton (D) except their party affiliations — and he’s not alone.
The Member-vs.-Member battle is one of the most competitive and expensive this redistricting cycle. But in northeastern Ohio, the contest is an afterthought.
The presidential campaign and a top-tier Senate race dominate the Cleveland airwaves and the political mind capacity of local voters. There’s little oxygen left for a House race — even one as contested as this.
That’s good news for Renacci — and bad for Sutton — in a district that Republicans drew to win. Less than three weeks until Election Day, the contest remains highly competitive, and Roll Call continues to rate it as a Tossup. But Sutton has a greater hurdle in a district that’s close to completely new to her.
“I know [Renacci] used to be a car dealership owner,” said Bill Repp, a 55-year-old security salesman at Cool Beans Café in Medina, located about 45 minutes southwest of Cleveland. “Betty, she’s been in politics for a while. I used to think that was good.”
On Election Day, Repp believes he will default to voting Republican. The 16th district is filled with voters such as him: fiscally conservative, economy-minded people living in dwindling manufacturing strongholds.
The disjointed district begins west of Cleveland, just a few miles from the Lake Erie’s shore, travels south along the city’s suburbs to absorb Medina, Wadsworth and Wooster on its west side. On the east side, it picks up small towns between Akron and Canton — including Sutton’s residence in Copley — but leaves out her hometown and geographic base of Barberton.
“They believed they would win this from the start because they would keep me from running if they kept it unattractive enough,” Sutton said, after speaking to a group of supportive firefighters in Avon on Wednesday. “That’s not who I am, and that’s not who the people of northeast Ohio are.”
It’s a region of Ohio that’s experienced population loss during the past decade. This decline contributed to the state shedding two House seats following reapportionment last year.
Republicans controlled the redrawing of lines in the state and moved Renacci and Sutton into the same district. About half of the district is new to Renacci, while Sutton currently represents about one-fifth of its territory.
“The greatest challenge is the 50 percent new district,” Renacci said Tuesday in Canton. “People don’t know who I am, and they see ads, and you’ve got to get past that. What I’ve learned is once you get past the clutter of the ads, and people get to meet me on-one-one, the majority of them understand my background, my experience and I get their support.”
‘The Auto Belt’
The daughter of a boilermaker, Sutton dismissed the term “Rust Belt.” Instead, the polished former labor attorney prefers to call this area the “Opportunity Belt.” But there’s another related moniker for parts of this region — the “Auto Belt” — because car manufacturing directs much of the local economy.
It’s why Sutton was the primary House sponsor of the “Cash for Clunkers” program three years ago, and the government trade-in program persists as an issue on the campaign trail today. For the second time in as many cycles, she faces a car dealership owner as an opponent.
“It’s ironic, because of the way the lines were drawn in redistricting, he’s one of the dealers who locked his franchise,” said Alan Spitzer, 66, a dealership owner and Sutton supporter who lives outside the 16th district in northern Ohio. “He’s a good man. I just think she deserves to be re-elected.”
Several weeks ago, Renacci ran TV ads blasting the government’s intervention in the auto industry via the auto bailout, showing his closed dealership to punctuate his point. The spots were quite a juxtaposition for voters here because Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is also on the ballot next month and remains relatively popular, ran advertisements touting the program’s success at the same time.
As the National Race Goes
A confident salesman in a navy suit, the visibly tired Renacci sells his business background to like-minded members of the National Association of Manufacturers in Canton. Earlier on Tuesday, he visited Royalton Architectural Fabrication, a company that constructs aluminum paneling for buildings such as the Cleveland State University Student Center. Everywhere, his fellow businessmen bemoan the state of the local economy.
“We’re in the construction business, so it’s not good,” griped Stefan Winkler, the 62-year-old owner of the fabrication company.
“It’s not good in any business right now,” Renacci replied. “You’re speaking to the choir. I was a CPA who started their own business.”
But no matter how hard Renacci and Sutton push issues of local importance, the fate of their race lies with the national campaigns. Democrats felt good about Sutton’s prospects in September, when President Barack Obama had a solid lead in the Buckeye State. Internal polls at the time showed Sutton slightly ahead, according to one Republican source.
But as the race between Obama and Mitt Romney has tightened in the state in recent weeks, Republicans are now the ones feeling better about a Renacci victory.
It’s a conservative-leaning district, so Sutton must run several points ahead of the president to win another term. If she loses, Democrats will argue it’s not indicative of her campaign or her abilities as a candidate. Local operatives describe Sutton one of the hardest-working House Members in the state and suggested she would still make a strong statewide candidate next cycle.
“I think it’s drowned out, to be honest with you,” said former Rep. John Boccieri, the Democrat whom Renacci defeated in 2010. “There’s so much negative advertisement on. People who are spending money from now to Election Day, and are running negative ads, are not going to stand out.”