Marcy Kaptur’s competitive race in Ohio’s 9th speaks volumes about the Democratic Party’s place in the Rust Belt

It was not yet 5 p.m. on a Thursday, but the 818 Club restaurant was already packed as Rep. Marcy Kaptur walked around, greeting locals and introducing herself.

For a congresswoman in office for nearly 40 years, you would think she would know more patrons in this popular restaurant. But this business is in a new part of her northern Ohio district, which changed dramatically after the latest round of redistricting, and whether Kaptur has served long enough is one of the most hotly debated questions among potential voters.

With Democrats holding a razor thin majority in the House, Kaptur’s race will help determine whether her party will keep control or face steep losses in November’s midterm elections. And even here, where economic struggles are deeply rooted, voters say they will have another issue on their mind as they go to the polls this year — abortion.

Previously, Ohio’s 9th District was so safely Democrat that even though President Joe Biden lost the state in 2020, he carried the district — which stretched along the coast of Lake Erie from Cleveland to Toledo — by more than 15 points. Kaptur herself easily won reelection that year.

But redistricting shifted the lines, encompassing counties in the northwest part of the state, stretching to the Indiana border – creating a much more conservative 9th district that Donald Trump would have won– and making Kaptur’s 19th run for office much more competitive. Not since redistricting forced her into a primary against fellow incumbent Dennis Kucinich in 2012 has Kaptur faced such odds.

“A lot of shoe leather, a lot of personal visits, a lot of public events,” Kaptur told CNN in an interview between events doing just that.

The race also features another dynamic with national implications: Kaptur’s Republican opponent, J.R. Majewski, is an election denier who was at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. He has said he went to protest peacefully and left when “it got ugly.”

The contest is a head-on collision between a long-time Rust Belt Democrat and an unabashed Trump Republican.

A midwestern Democrat

Being a brand name in northern Ohio helps Kaptur a lot. She’s been a recognizable and present figure here for four decades.

But she says being a midwestern Democrat in a party increasingly run with big city sensibilities on both coasts is a growing challenge for her.

“What coastal people, God bless them, don’t understand, is that we lost our middle class,” Kaptur said.

“We lost so many people who’ve worked hard all their lives, including in many of these small towns. I understand that. We feel their pain. We went through it together.”

Kaptur is relying on voters like Joe Stallbaum, a member of the sheet metal workers Local 33 Toledo district, a union that endorsed both Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and Kaptur this year.

Stallbaum has been working on a massive renovation of Toledo’s convention center for nearly two years and says helping revitalize his hometown fills him with pride. But he also says a lot of his friends and colleagues still feel forgotten.

“I think there should be a lot more focus on working class people and what we do,” he explained. “It just seems like we always get left behind.”

A second-generation construction worker, Stallbaum says he watched a lot of his fellow union members abandon the Democratic Party in favor of Trump in 2016 and other Republicans since then. With union households making up close to 20% of the vote, it helps explain Democrats’ struggles in Ohio and other parts of the Rust Belt.

But Stallbaum believes that Kaptur is different than the national Democratic Party — she’s someone who appreciates and understands blue collar workers.

“I always felt that Marcy listened to working class people. That’s one of the things I like about her. I think she’s very approachable. She doesn’t seem distant to me. I feel I could have reached out to her anytime I had wanted to.”

A longtime Kaptur supporter, he plans to vote for her again.

“She’s never given me a reason not to support her. Everything she’s always done is for Toledo and for our region,” he said. “I trust her.”

Support for Trump remains

But that kind of support for Kaptur is harder to find in the new, conservative parts of the district — especially at Bud’s Restaurant in Defiance, Ohio, where the coffee is always hot and the conversation is always lively – especially early in the mornings when a regular group of men fill the booths.

CNN asked the seven men stretching across two tables if anyone planned to vote for Kaptur. Only one said yes.

Trump won Defiance County by more than 35 points in 2020. He endorsed Kaptur’s challenger Majewski in June.

For Joe Clements, Trump’s endorsement alone is enough.

“It means a lot. I like Trump,” he said.

But that’s controversial, even here.

“The man wants to be a dictator,” said Steve Santo, the lone Kaptur supporter at the table. “You don’t understand that. He tried to overthrow our government. And that’s the bottom line and you guys can’t see it. I’m sorry. That’s what happened on January 6. You can’t tell me any different.”

Majewski’s presence at the Capitol on the day of the insurrection is a deal breaker for Santo.

“I would never vote for him. For any of those people who were there on January 6th. They actually tried to overtake our government.”

His friend Scott Brown disagreed.

“I think there were a lot of people who were there that didn’t go in – just were there to be part of it. So I don’t think that would influence my vote against him.”

Brown, now retired, says his party allegiance has changed in recent years.

“I always considered myself a Democrat. Since the way Democrats have been coming down on everything, I changed my feelings about that, and now I have signed up to be a Republican.”

Terry Howarth was also down on Democrats in Washington.

“Biden’s got this country – you know Afghanistan, the border, inflation, this student loan thing.” he said, pausing on his list of grievances with the Biden administration to emphasize how upset he is about the president’s plan for student loan forgiveness.

“I paid for my kids’ education, I paid for my own education. If you go to college, you expect the guy who’s like who just barely get by here. Expect them to pay for somebody’s college education?”

Still, not all voters at Bud’s are sold on Majewski, an Air Force veteran who became known in this area for turning his lawn into a 19,000-foot Trump 2020 sign.

CNN’s KFILE unearthed evidence Majewski repeatedly promoted QAnon conspiracies, though he’s since denied being a follower. He’s also spread the baseless theory that the January 6 attack was “driven by the F.B.I. and it was a stage show.”

Seth Peters, a Republican, hasn’t decided who he’s going to vote for, because he doesn’t know enough about Majewski’s platform.

“I want to see how he would improve the area. How he would do in Congress, what his plans are. Because I’m 30, almost 31, my wife and I are probably going to have kids and what are they going to do for our kids, for our grandkids, our future?” Peters asked.

Through a spokesman, Majewski declined CNN’s request for an interview to answer such questions, or provide any information about public events where he might be explaining his positions.

The abortion issue prevails

Even amidst a struggling economy, many of the voters CNN talked to across the district said abortion was a top concern. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, holding that there is no longer a federal constitutional right to an abortion, many voters have become energized by the issue that was once considered settled law.

In Toledo, Stallbaum, the union member and sheet metal worker, said women’s rights was the number one issue driving his vote.

“I may not agree with it, somebody else may not agree with it. That doesn’t matter to me,” he said of abortion. “What matters to me is that it’s your decision to make. That person’s, that woman’s decision to make, nobody else’s. And I think that was absolutely wrong to take that away.

He attributes some of that to his union values.

“In the trades, it doesn’t matter what your race, your religion, your political affiliation, your gender, we all get paid the same. Men and women side by side get paid exactly the same in hourly rate. Exactly the same in benefits. It should be like that across the board.”

Back at Bud’s, Republican-leaning voter Terry Howarth is also concerned.

“I realize as a medic retired from the medical field, that to overturn Roe vs. Wade, there’s gonna be a lot of women who die,” he said, but also made clear the issue is not driving his vote and still intended to support Republicans here in November.

Across the table from Howarth, Greg Steyer says it is his top issue. He’s Catholic, firmly against abortion, and though his son once worked for Kaptur, he says he will vote against her because she supports abortion rights.

“Obviously the Democratic Party supports abortion. Probably the biggest question I have is, how […] Catholic leadership can say that they are strong Catholics and still support abortion?” said Steyer.

“Greg and I disagree on the abortion issue,” Howarth shot back.

“We need to do something to change that we’re not having 700,000 abortions a year. But we cannot make it illegal.”

Following the Supreme Court striking down Roe, a law passed by the Ohio state legislature in 2019 went into effect, prohibiting abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. That law was temporarily blocked last week, so abortions in the state currently can be obtained up to 20 weeks post-fertilization.

Majewski has not been outspoken on the issue. Kaptur supports a woman’s right to choose — and told CNN that she hears about it from voters across the state.

“I had a young woman come up to me in Defiance, and she said, ‘Marcy, if something happens, what am I supposed to do?’ She was in tears,” Kaptur said.

She acknowledged that the right to an abortion is tenuous in her state.

“Ohio is a state where that 10-year-old girl, who was a victim of incest, was made to go out of state. Her adult relatives had to take her out of state to make a decision, a consequential decision,” Kaptur said, referring to the young girl who traveled to Indiana earlier this year for an abortion.

“I think people want that decision to be made freely, within the confines of their own family, and they don’t want politicians or Washington taking away their freedom.”

Poised to break another record

Kaptur is currently the longest serving female member in the history of the House of Representatives. If she wins in November and is sworn in for a 20th term, she will break another record, surpassing former Sen. Barbara Mikulski as the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress.

That fact that she’s been in office so long sparks strong feelings among voters, especially at Buds.

“If the guy from Toledo wins, we’re back to base one again,” said Santo, referring to Majewski, the GOP challenger.

“Oh, do you want to be on this committee? Well, we’ll let you be on there for a minute or so, but you have no say in what goes on. But now Marcy’s already got it going on. She can do more for Ohio right now than anybody else,” he added.

This sparked friendly jabs from others at the table, teasing him that he sounds like an advertisement for Kaptur.

“Not that she’s not a good person. I just think she’s been in office long enough,” said Brown.

Others said Kaptur’s nearly 40 years in office exemplifies the need for term limits in Congress.

When CNN asked Kaptur about those concerns, she insisted her longevity is a big part of what makes her successful.

“When you come from this part of the country, all you have is your seniority and your work ethic in order to deliver for your people. Because the other places have more voices – California has almost 60 members of Congress. Ohio only has 15,” she explained.

“When you get there, you’re outnumbered, and you don’t have the gavel, you don’t have some of the resources that they have. So, it takes longer to achieve something.”

As the longtime Ohio lawmaker enters the final weeks of the most competitive race she has had in a while, she honed her Rust Belt pitch for yet another term.

“I come from the working-class people. I know what it takes. And there so few such voices. So, I stand on the shoulders of people who have sacrificed greatly,” she said.

The-CNN-Wire
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