Health Care, High Court Drive Dead Heat in Ohio’s 1st

CINCINNATI (CN) – Outside Cincinnati’s Warsaw Federal Incline Theater on a Wednesday in October, shortly before the second of four scheduled debates between two congressional candidates, a crowd of Democratic supporters gathered with the downtown skyline behind them.

Republican Steve Chabot has held Ohio’s 1st Congressional District seat for 21 of the past 23 years, but is facing a formidable threat in the form of up-and-coming Democratic candidate Aftab Pureval.

Pureval, the son of first-generation American immigrants from India, was tabbed as a rising star in the Democratic Party when he became the first Democrat in over 100 years elected to the position of Hamilton County clerk of courts in 2016.

Democratic congressional hopeful Aftab Pureval greets supporters before a debate in Cincinnati on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Koeninger/CNS).

Nearly 50 Pureval supporters showed up more than an hour before the debate was scheduled to begin, and raucous chants amplified by a bullhorn echoed across the street, where debate attendees could be seen milling about in the glass-fronted building.

Speaking with several of the supporters, who chose not to give their personal information or be quoted for this story, it’s clear that 1st District Democrats are ready for a change.

Lamenting Chabot’s extensive time in office, riders of the “blue wave” said the congressman has no record to stand on and, as a result, has run a campaign full of malicious and misleading attacks on Pureval.

Pureval has based his campaign on visiting residents of the district and being visible to voters, while continually criticizing Chabot for taking too many trips and essentially forgetting about his constituents.

The parallels drawn from outside the debate venue couldn’t be more striking: Pureval jumped out of a car while his supporters were in full voice, offering a quick note of support over the bullhorn and leaving the throng of spectators eager for the debate.

Chabot supporters were nowhere to be seen.

But Democrats aren’t interested in change just for change’s sake – they’re also fed up with Chabot’s recent voting record on health care.

Days later, outside a high school football game at Northwest High School, several Pureval supporters braved a rainy, 40-degree night to hand out pamphlets to voters.

Jackie Lemmink, from the small community of Colerain, told Courthouse News that coverage for pre-existing conditions is a driving force behind the Democratic effort to oust Chabot.

“We have Aftab standing up for the people of Ohio,” Lemmink said, “[and] we have Chabot who’s voted three times against pre-existing conditions and voted to take away ACA.”

Lemmink went on to say that the issue is particularly important to her because her sister was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a type of hormonal deficiency, at age 16.

“I want her protected,” Lemmink said.

And while the current political climate is rife with vitriol and anger from both parties, Lemmink stressed level-headed thinking.

“We want things to be toned down, all around the board,” she said. “You’re almost biting your own leg if you’re against the people that you live with in America, so we have to find common ground.”

Bob Wimmers, of Reading, was also outside the football game, and echoed Lemmink’s concerns over healthcare.

“Aftab’s made it clear he would never [remove] pre-existing conditions [coverage],” Wimmers said.

Wimmers also mentioned infrastructure and criticized the tax break passed under President Donald Trump.

“They use all the tax money … to give to the rich and the companies,” he said.

But Republicans won’t cede the 1st District without a fight, and several high-profile visitors to the Cincinnati area have buoyed support for Chabot and other conservative candidates, including the Republican nominee for governor, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

President Trump visited Lebanon, just outside of Cincinnati, on Oct. 12, and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina held a rally for Chabot and DeWine the day before Halloween.

Courthouse News attended the rally in downtown Cincinnati, and spoke with several supporters before Senator Graham made his appearance.

Kevin Crowler, 52, of Butler County, said that despite the media’s focus on a blue wave this November, he feels like Republicans have actually gained momentum heading into the midterm election.

“I think the momentum has switched,” Crowler said, “and I think the Democrats made a tactical error in that strong resistance to Kavanaugh. I think ever since then, I’ve seen a lot more people coming out, saying they’re going to vote, they’re going to be voting Republican.”

Crowler called the Democratic tactics during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh “out of bounds,” and said he has spoken to several independent voters who are now leaning Republican.

Ohio is always in the national spotlight during election season. Pureval’s campaign has raised more than $3.1 million as of Sept. 30, and boosted Democratic hopes of securing an advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The spotlight, however, has also increased scrutiny on Pureval, who is currently being investigated by the Ohio Elections Commission for potential campaign funding violations.

The commission is set to conduct a hearing on Nov. 1 –five days before the election – to determine if Pureval illegally used money from his clerk of courts re-election campaign to fund polling and photography for his congressional race.

During the Oct. 24 debate at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, Chabot pounced on the accusations and accused Pureval of avoiding the press after the investigation and subsequent hearing were announced.

Pureval defended his campaign’s actions, and said any spending was done after consulting with expert advisors.

Neither Pureval nor Chabot responded to interview requests for this story.

A 1st District voter at Senator’s Graham event told Courthouse News that while the Pureval investigation did not affect his vote one way or the other, it could have an impact on the “squishy middle” of independent voters who are still undecided.

Larry Sabato’s “crystal ball” predictor from the University of Virginia Center for Politics recently changed its outlook on the race from toss-up to lean Republican, while the gubernatorial race between DeWine and Democrat Richard Cordray is seen as a toss-up.

Speaking ahead of Senator Graham at the Oct. 30, Chabot repeated a statement he made during the debate with Pureval a week earlier.

“I am not the flashiest guy in the world,” Chabot said. “That’s what my opponent is…There are work horses, and there are show horses. And I’m the work horse.”

It remains to be seen whether this two-horse race will come down to a photo finish on Nov. 6.

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