In Ohio, a Tale of Two Republican Parties in House Elections

Two Republican-controlled congressional districts in Ohio offer a study in contrasts about the GOP as it gears up to defend long-held seats and quell grassroots divisions come November.

In the 6th Congressional District, in east Ohio, sits Rep. Bill Johnson (R-06), first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on a wave of tea party discontent in 2010.

Johnson nabbed the office despite two other third-party candidates likely to siphon away conservative votes and bested his Democratic opponent in 2012 by nearly 7 percentage points. Now, a two-person Democratic primary and lack of competition from his own could mean an easy election victory for Johnson in a recently gerrymandered district friendly to conservatives.

In the 14th Congressional District — further north — Rep. David Joyce (R-14) faces competition from both a tea party candidate in his own primary and a strong Democratic hopeful. Strategists see Joyce’s claim to the House seat as less than secure.

His Republican rival, state Rep. Matt Lynch, looks to challenge the incumbent Roll Call dubbed “Ohio’s most vulnerable GOP target.”

Joyce secured his freshman term as congressman amid claims of unfairness in some circles. A surprise retirement by outgoing Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-14) in 2012 left little time for Republicans to choose a candidate and, some say, forced local party leaders to front Joyce in absence of a primary.

Lynch — who calls himself a true “conservative candidate for Congress” on his website — may try to use the procedural move to his advantage with grassroots Republicans.

The trend has been a typical one for Republican primaries in recent years, with grassroots conservatives imposing litmus tests that analysts say help them get past competitive primaries, but ultimately turn off independents and lose winnable elections.

This may present Democrats with the opportunity to flip a district held by Republicans since 2000. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called the upcoming election one of the most competitive on its blog, underscoring a shot at the House seat by Michael Wager, an Ohio attorney and Democratic donor.

For his part, Wager continues to draw considerable campaign dollars ahead of the November midterms.

OpenSecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group, reports that the Democrat pulled in more than $500,000 by December 2013, with nearly 90 percent of his funds coming from large contributors.

Joyce’s incumbency status nevertheless gives him the best early-money advantage. The congressman counted $1,198,140 in campaign cash by the last quarter, nearly all of it available as cash on hand. Large contributors accounted for almost half of the fundraising total. Political action committees made up another 47 percent of his war chest.

The website did not reflect any quarterly reports for Lynch, but that may matter less with grassroots conservatives. According to his website, the state representative already counts FreedomWorks of America and a county affiliate of the tea party, both influential conservative organizations, among his early endorsers.

Compared with Johnson, that may yet make Joyce’s role in this story more interesting — and the election outcome less certain in a year that strategists are saying may slightly favor Republicans.

“It is without a doubt the most competitive race in Ohio,” the same Roll Call story quoted Joe Cimperman, a Democratic city council member from Cleveland, as saying. “I think it’s going to be one of the top 10 most competitive races in the country.”

Voters in Ohio choose their candidates under a closed primary system. Voters must be registered with one of the major parties to participate in primary elections and, according to FairVote.org, a voter’s right to participate in a party primary can be challenged on the basis that they are not affiliated with the party. The registration deadline for voters is May 7.

Photo Credit: Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call