District Rundown: Ohio’s 9th

BACKGROUND

In August, Split Ticket launched a new general election preview series called District Rundown. The first edition covered the pivotal special election in New York’s 19th district, which ultimately helped to shift national expectations regarding the national environment in a Democratic direction. Because the November elections are only 44 days away, pieces focusing on different competitive House seat will be published weekly.

DISTRICT

Ohio’s 9th is a Republican-trending, Trump +2.9 seat located in the northwestern corner of the Buckeye State. Running west to east, it connects the cities of Defiance and Sandusky with Democratic-dominated Toledo. About 55% of the 9th’s total population lives in Lucas County, home to a mixture of urban black voters, working-class whites, and midwestern suburbanites.

The redistricted 9th is significantly-redder than the snake on the lake, its affectionately-named predecessor, which awkwardly connected Toledo and Cleveland together into a Biden +19 seat. While both the new and old districts could be classified as Republican-trending, the removal of Cuyahoga and Lorain counties from the latest iteration of the 9th gives Republicans a legitimate chance of victory that they otherwise would not have had.

Swing 2012/2016 President to 2020 President

Even if Republicans narrowly lose the 9th this fall, recent trends witnessed among white voters along the Ohio lakefront suggest that the seat will come into GOP hands sooner or later. As the above swing graphic displays, Republicans have gained ground throughout the redrawn seat. Democrats, however, have predictably made inroads in some suburban portions of Lucas and Wood counties.

The results from the last three presidential contests in the 9th district paint an even-clearer picture of its future. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama would have carried the seat by 17 points. Since that time, shifts among traditionally-Democratic whites have moved the district almost 20 points to the right. With Trump’s locally-popular brand set to influence the GOP for the foreseeable future, changes in regional political directionality are expected to continue.

CANDIDATES

The Democratic incumbent in the 9th district is Marcy Kaptur (Toledo), a fixture of Lucas County politics since her election in 1982. Apart from her initial reelection and a 2012 double-bunking primary against Dennis Kucinich, Kaptur has faced little electoral difficulty over the course of her career. She is currently the longest-serving female U.S. Representative, and would succeed Barbara Mikulski as the most senior woman in congressional history if she secures reelection in the fall.

On the Republican side, the nominee is J.R. Majewski (Port Clinton). He surprised many observers, but not Split Ticket, when he narrowly beat legislators Craig Riedel and Theresa Gavarone to secure the GOP nomination earlier this year. Majewski had painted a mural of former President Donald Trump on his lawn prior to the campaign, but only received the ex-President’s support after officially becoming the party’s November standard-bearer.

THE RACE

POLLING

Only one poll of this year’s race in Ohio’s 9th district has been published. That June survey, a Republican internal, showed Kaptur leading Majewski by five points, a margin of 47-42%. While there has almost certainly been private polling of this district on both sides since the Dobbs decision, there are no data recent enough to characterize either candidate as an obvious favorite.

In this case, the ongoing Democratic momentum on the generic ballot is probably a better gauge of the party’s national standing. For instance, a lead of D+2 or greater on the 538 generic House ballot average would give the Democrats a useful cushion around the country. That type of padding could be crucial when trying to hold a rightward-trending Trump seat.

This is not to suggest that Majewski cannot win, but rather that it would be difficult for him to do so if the GOP faces a national headwind instead of the fortuitous tailwind like the one that pundits predicted back in June. Without the advantages of public polling, race predictions heavily on district fundamentals, trend directionality, candidate quality, and the national environment.

In this case, Kaptur’s decades-long connection to the 9th district and Toledo could be just enough to deliver victory in a seat that a generic Republican would probably be moderately-favored to win against a Democrat under similar environmental conditions.

FUNDRAISING

Just like polling, fundraising should be important, but not overbearing, in any well-balanced House district analysis. Split Ticket has statistically-proven that fundraising advantages can, to some degree, affect vote share, but we still consider it unwise to base analyses entirely on warchests and cash on hand ratios. Well no serious pundits focus exclusively on fundraising, some handicappers read too much into it.

On the one hand, raising large sums of money gives a candidate the cash on hand that he or she needs to compete for a competitive congressional district. Appropriations expenditures are utilized to pay for TV advertisement reservations, printed campaign literature, staff expenses, and other important operations. Since spending in categories like these is necessary to generate crucial name recognition, certain observers argue that candidates who are heavily-outspent by their counterparts have little to no chance of victory.

This is true on its face, but the degree to which low-spenders should be considered underdogs depends on the degree to which they are being outraised by their opponents. If a frontrunner, for instance, outspends a challenger $17 million to $1 million, the economic law of diminishing returns comes into play. In other words, while money is important, it can only swing votes so far in the modern age of polarization. California Democrat Katie Porter’s 2020 reelection was a great example of this phenomenon.

All of these background points are necessary when it comes to understanding the fundraising dynamics in Ohio’s 9th district. On paper, Kaptur has had a definite advantage over Majewski since the start of the campaign, raising $1.7 million in comparison to his $435K. This upper-hand is also apparent when looking at cash on hand, a metric which Kaptur leads $1.6 million to $113K.

Even though these quarterly-numbers will not be updated again until October, both deficits should be worrying for the Majewski campaign. With a little over one month to go until election day, Kaptur’s advantages could give her more uncontested access to the 9th district’s airwaves. She is still set to have the closest race of her career, but a financial advantage of this size could be suffice to swing enough undecided voters to eke out a win.

Perhaps more alarming for Majewski’s efforts is the fact that national Republicans have shown no interest in bailing him out with outside spending after allegations surfaced that he was dishonest about a military deployment to Afghanistan during his tenure in the U.S. Air Force. It would behoove Republicans to continue to contest this district in earnest given favorable trends, but it is unlikely that the GOP’s top strategists will not divert funds to a race which they consider a lost cause.

BENCHMARKS AND FUNDAMENTALS

For a Republican to win the 9th district comfortably, the baseline would logically be Trump’s +/- 3 point victory in 2020. A GOP candidate could underperform the ex-Presidents numbers and still win, but it would make success much more uncertain. However, given present expectations of a mixed national environment and Kaptur’s traditional ability to outrun the top of the ticket, Majewski is probably unlikely to meet or exceed Trump’s margin.

To form a winning coalition, assuming a high-turnout midterm, Majewski would have to start by building a credible foundation. In such a scenario, he would rely on Trump-level margins in the district’s ruby-red counties, like Defiance, which Kaptur is unfamiliar with. To pad his floor, he would then need to secure the east with a win in Erie County (Sandusky) of roughly ten points. Finally, and most crucially, he would have to keep Kaptur’s margin in Lucas County (Toledo) below 20 points.

EXPECTATIONS AND IMPLICATIONS

At the end of the day, the race in the 9th district is perplexing for multiple reasons. Intuitively, favorable Republicans trends in northwestern Ohio imply that a generic GOP candidate would be favored over a basic Democrat, even in a national environment that works against Republicans. But that is simply not the case in this year’s race. Candidate quality matters, and poor candidate selection by the out-party can make winnable races more difficult to flip, especially when the targeted incumbent has a historical record of electoral overperformance.

That is not to say that J.R. Majewski will lose to Marcy Kaptur, though his chances of general election victory in Split Ticket’s eyes have declined as of late. Ultimately, allegations regarding January 6th and falsified service documents probably will not impact the race as much as outsiders think. If anything wins it for Kaptur in the end, it will probably be a combination of both her warchest and advantageous local brand.

Split Ticket understands why some forecasters consider the 9th LEANS DEMOCRATIC, but has decided to stick with a TOSSUP rating out of an abundance of caution. If a winner had to be selected today, we would choose Kaptur, but we do not believe that there is any reason to rush to judgement with over a month before election day.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

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