CINCINNATI – Beleaguered Democratic House incumbent Steve Driehaus is the antithesis of a stiff-upper-lip, suffer-in-silence politician. Confronted with bad news (and the 44-year-old freshman congressman has had more than his share this week in his rematch race against Republican Steve Chabot), Driehaus revels in his defiance.
Saturday morning, the red-faced Driehaus – leaving his blue blazer on the chair as he stood to rally 150 AFL-CIO union activists -- began his five-minute speech with an admission that most candidates would bury in the fine print of their Federal Election Commission reports.
"I got a call from my campaign manager this morning," he declared, with national AFL president Rich Trumka looking on. "She's a little worried that Steve Chabot raised more money than I did this quarter. Shocking."
A few beats later, the Bad News Bear candidate reminded the union-hall crowd, "You may have heard this week that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pulled some of its ads for me down in this district."
About all that was missing was the lament that the Driehaus family dog was being held for ransom by the John Boehner Fan Club.
Trailing in the polls and widely identified as among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the nation (most non-partisan rating systems
describe the district as "Leans Republican"), Driehaus was stung by the DCCC's decision to cancel more than $500,000 in local TV ads, which is more money than either candidate raised in the third quarter.
But unlike every other Democratic incumbent left adrift as the national party performed its triage to redirect money to races it considered more winnable, Driehaus launched an immediate counterattack. The congressman impulsively cut a minute-long video
(primitively shot with the candidate, his collar-button open and his tie askew, sitting against a white wall decorated with a Driehaus campaign poster) that went up on ActBlue, a grassroots Democratic fund-raising website.
"I've had the guts to stand up for you when it comes to tough votes on health care, changing our economy, turning this around and making a difference while we stand up to Wall Street," Driehaus declared in the video before launching his hard sell: "Let's send a message to the DCCC that you stand up for candidates who stand up for your principles."
By late Saturday afternoon, the anti-DCCC appeal had brought in less than $5,000 for Driehaus, although the freshman congressman has raised more than $200,000 on ActBlue
during the entire campaign cycle.
During a Friday interview at a bagel shop near the University of Cincinnati campus, Driehaus, a former state legislator, tried to portray himself as the victim of bad polling, ("I'm one of the few House members who understands regression analysis").
Referring to the last published poll (by SurveyUSA for the Cincinnati Enquirer
) in late September, which showed him losing to Chabot by 12 points, Driehaus pounced on its methodological flaws.
"That poll determined that the turnout in this race would be about 17 percent African-American," Driehaus said, referring to his Cincinnati-centered district, which Barack Obama carried with 55 percent of the vote in 2008. "But this is a 30-percent African-American district."
Driehaus also demonstrated his sophisticated grasp of the innards of polling by invoking a recent study that revealed a small built-in GOP edge
in polls (like those of SurveyUSA) that exclude cell-phone users.
Using Driehaus' math – after changing the turnout model and adjusting for cell phones – "that 12-point differential becomes a 5-to-6 point differential, which to my mind is in the margin of error." There are a few problems with this self-serving calculus -- most notably that it is never a good sign in politics when a candidate, in effect, brags, "That poll is garbage. I'm only losing by 6 points." Presumably, the DCCC used its own internal polling (and not SurveyUSA) when it made its white-flag decision on campaign ads. Moreover, Chabot claims his own polls (Driehaus explained that he is no longer conducting horse-race surveys) show him with a double-digit lead.
On paper, Driehaus should not be one of the most imperiled Democrats in the nation. Even though Chabot served seven terms in the House before he was defeated by Driehaus (with 53 percent of the vote) in 2008, Ohio's First District is a classic swing district. The charismatically challenged John Kerry won 49 percent of the vote here in 2004. With strong Catholic pro-life sentiment in the district, Driehaus, like Chabot. is anti-abortion, which makes him a rarity in the House Democratic caucus.
The theory in the Chabot campaign is that the House vote that damaged Driehaus the most was his last-minute support
in March for the Obama health-care legislation. Part of a small group of hold-out anti-abortion Democrats, Driehaus only agreed to back the bill after the president promised to issue an executive order banning financing for abortion.
"I was never against health care," Driehaus stressed to me in our interview, before alluding to the last-minute congressional machinations on the health care issue when he said, "It is what it is – and I think people understand my position."
The Chabot campaign ridiculed his health-care vote as a flip-flop
in a recent voice-of-doom TV commercial with the tag line, "Congressman Driehaus put his party leaders first -- hurting us all." Like many ads from both candidates in this race, the accuracy of the Chabot spot
was critiqued by the Cincinnati Enquirer's Ad Watch.
I first covered a Chabot campaign back in 1998 when the conservative Republican, who served on the House Judiciary Committee, survived a fierce re-election challenge over his support for Bill Clinton's impeachment. What I noted then (as we toured church bingo halls thick with cigarette smoke), and Democrats grudgingly admit now, is that the 57-year-old Chabot works hard at the old-fashioned aspects of the political game from hand-shaking to lawn signs,(he has distributed 10,000).
Sitting on a couch in his campaign office Saturday morning, Chabot, wearing a dark tweed jacket and khaki slacks, tried to explain what went wrong for him in 2008.
"It was the huge turnout in the most Democratic parts of the district," he said. "We still could have narrowly held on except for the fact that there was a 10-percent drop-off in the most Republican parts of the district, out in the suburban areas. Why is that? McCain didn't run a particularly strong campaign ... The economic meltdown got more blamed on the Republicans because Bush was in the White House."
Now Driehaus -- out-funded, partly abandoned by his own party and deprived of George Bush as a political foil -- is left depending on the elusive magic of Democratic turnout to confound the pundits and the national political operatives in November.
After Driehaus spoke to the AFL-CIO rally ("Commercials don't get me elected, it's the men and women in this room busting their ass who got me elected"), I chatted with Robert Sturdevant, who was there as the chief labor delegate from the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. "Driehaus is fighting an uphill battle all the time," Sturdevant said. "This race is a good microcosm of how much labor can bring to an off-year election."
Betting on the labor vote has not been the safest strategy for Democrats over the last few decades. And Alicia Reece, a black state representative from central Cincinnati, admits that the African-American vote, a key Democratic constituency, has been slow to mobilize, "People are just now getting fired up for voting," she said.
But Steve Driehaus still insists that his ordeal and his rejection by the DCCC "has awakened the base." The freshman Democrat insisted to me during our interview, "I don't go through the motions. I don't intend to lose. And we're going to see this through and we're going to win." As Driehaus uttered those fighting words, I noticed how fiercely his hands were gripping his paper cup of coffee. It was either his own form of emphatic punctuation or a reflection of his desperate need to cling to something – even a cup of lukewarm coffee – in a storm.
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