Democrats hope for morale boost in Ohio special election, but GOP not worried

Trump-backed lobbyist faces state legislator in race to replace Stivers

Ohio Republican Mike Carey has the endorsement of President Donald Trump in the special election for Ohio’s 15th District.  (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images file photo)
Ohio Republican Mike Carey has the endorsement of President Donald Trump in the special election for Ohio’s 15th District. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images file photo)
Posted October 27, 2021 at 5:30am

Ohio is a tough state for candidates seeking upsets in House races — neither party has managed to flip a single House seat there since the current boundaries were drawn 10 years ago. 

But that’s what Democratic state Rep. Allison Russo is hoping to accomplish in the Nov. 2 special election to replace former Republican Rep. Steve Stivers in the 15th District. 

“I’m no stranger to tough fights,” Russo, who flipped a GOP-held legislative district in 2018, said in a statement.

Despite the Republican lean of the 15th District, south of Columbus, Russo, a health care consultant, has been keeping pace with coal lobbyist Mike Carey in fundraising and outside support. 

That alone has some Democrats hoping that Russo — who has a reputation as a bipartisan coalition builder in the state House — could defy the odds, especially in a special election when low turnout can make results more difficult to predict. 

“If any Democrat would have a chance of making a strong showing, it would be a Democrat like her,” said Herb Asher, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. National Democrats would likely seize on such an outcome as a sign that they can buck the historical trends working against them in the 2022 midterms, he added.

“I still think it’s a long shot, but if they could win, what a statement for Democrats, and what a morale booster,” Asher said. 

An Oct. 14-16 Emerson College poll, however, found Carey leading Russo by 11 points, 50 percent to 39 percent, among likely district voters. The survey had margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 points. 

Republicans expect the race to confirm that independent voters have not been energized by President Joe Biden’s agenda and that former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, which Carey got in June, still matters to their base. Trump carried the district by 14 points last fall, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.

Democrat Allison Russo has nearly matched Carey in fundraising in the special election for Ohio’s 15th District. (Courtesy Russo for Congress)

“I agree that Allison Russo is a good candidate, but Mike Carey is also a good candidate,” said Stivers, who resigned in May to head the state Chamber of Commerce. He said Carey demonstrated his discipline — and the power of Trump’s endorsement — when he won the Aug. 3 GOP primary. Carey took 37 percent of the vote in an 11-person field that included several better-known rivals, including the state lawmaker Stivers had endorsed. 

On the ballot

Tuesday will also see a special election in Ohio’s 11th District for the seat Democrat Marcia L. Fudge vacated to become Housing and Urban Development secretary. Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown, the winner of a contentious August Democratic primary, faces Republican Laverne Gore. These are likely the last elections under the current Ohio map, with the state losing a House seat in redistricting.

Russo’s campaign reported raising $550,000 in the last fundraising period — on par with Carey’s $549,000. Her total for the cycle was $823,000, compared with $1 million for Carey. Both had around $180,000 in the bank on Oct. 13.

The candidates have attracted modest support from national groups since the primary. Carey benefited from $25,000 total spent by Freedom’s Defense Fund and the Ohio Republican Party. And the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP campaign arm, placed a coordinated television ad with the Carey campaign this month that ties Russo to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to Medium Buying, a political advertising firm.

Progressive group MoveOn.org spent $80,000 on phone calls and canvassing to support Russo, and the Center for Civic Information spent $36,000 on yard signs opposing Carey, according to disclosures with the Federal Election Commission. 

‘Reliably Republican’

The limited spending has led Ohio-based GOP consultant Curt Steiner to conclude that national groups don’t see the race as competitive.

“There’s no reason to think that this district, which is pretty reliably Republican, won’t stay that way in November,” he said.

Russo has spent the closing weeks of her campaign crisscrossing the district, which ranges from the Columbus suburbs to the Appalachians. She has posted Twitter check-ins from an independently owned coffee shop, a rural pumpkin fair and a suburban neighborhood where she canvassed in the rain with Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running for the Senate.

“She has put on an amazing campaign,” said David Leland, a Democrat who serves with Russo in the state House. “The fact that she has run the race she has run is a victory in and of itself given how tough the terrain is for any Democrat.”

Russo has hammered Carey for declining debate appearances and aired TV ads attempting to tie him to a 2018 scandal involving the company that Carey worked for as a lobbyist, Murray Energy. The state GOP has called the ad “riddled with errors,” and asked local television stations to stop airing it. 

Steiner, the GOP consultant, noted that Russo has focused on Carey, not Biden or Trump. 

“That’s an indication that most voters in the district are favorable to Trump and unfavorable toward Biden, which makes her job tough,” he said. “Mike Carey is strongly connected to Trump, and if that was a good issue for Russo to use, then she would be using it.”

Carey has leaned hard into his Trump endorsement, declaring on his campaign website that he is “pro-Trump” and “ready to fight.” He has painted Russo as a potential ally of Pelosi who would feed inflation and waste taxpayer money, 

The Carey campaign did not respond to a request to comment for this report. 

Carey has avoided mainstream media — declining to sit down with the editorial board of The Columbus Dispatch, the largest paper in the region, for example. Instead, he has appeared on GOP-friendly platforms such as One America News Network and conservative talk radio host Brandon Boxer’s show. He has criticized Biden’s border policy and talked about “energized” crowds at school board meetings, where Republicans hope anger about the way racial issues are taught can help them win over suburban voters.

The 15th District, drawn by GOP state lawmakers to favor Republicans, includes liberal enclaves such as the college town of Athens and the upscale and largely white Columbus suburbs. But it also reaches into deeply rural territory and former coal-mining regions. Stivers represented it for the last decade, winning every election by double digits.

Russo pointed out that Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown carried the district in 2018, a wave year for Democrats, and district voters backed Democrat Jennifer Brunner in her winning race for an Ohio Supreme Court seat in 2020. 

“When I ran for the state House in 2018, folks told me a first-time candidate couldn’t flip a district that Republicans had won by 21 percent two years earlier, but I forged onwards,” she said. “I took the time to listen to Ohioans about what’s important to them, campaigned on issues that would help working families, advocated for good ideas no matter which party they came from — and we won.”  

But Stivers, who chaired the NRCC during the 2018 cycle, said his former seat still had a strong partisan lean. 

“Even if Mike doesn’t get any of the independents that I used to, he still wins it pretty big,” Stivers said.

Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.