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0000017a-3b40-d913-abfe-bf44a4f90000Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU news team as the politics reporter and columnist in April 2012 , after 30 years of covering local, state and national politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. On this page, you will find his weekly column, Politically Speaking; the Monday morning political chats with News Director Maryanne Zeleznik and other news coverage by Wilkinson. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio gubernatorial race since 1974, as well as 16 presidential nominating conventions. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots, the Lucasville prison riot in 1993, the Air Canada plane crash at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983, and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. And, given his passion for baseball, you might even find some stories about the Cincinnati Reds here from time to time.

Are SW Ohio Democratic congressional candidates the ultimate underdogs?


So, of all the candidates on the November ballot in southwest Ohio, which have the highest mountains to climb?

The answer may well be these three Democrats – Fred Kundrata, Marek Tyszkiewicz, and Tom Poetter.

They are the Democratic candidates for the U.S. House taking on three well-known and well-funded Republican incumbents in districts that are very friendly to Republicans – Steve Chabot, Brad Wenstrup, and House Speaker John Boehner, respectively.

Unless you are a Democratic primary voter in Ohio’s 1st, 2nd and 8th congressional districts, you may not have heard the names Kundrata, Tyszkiewicz and Poetter before. And, even if you were a Democratic voter in the May primary, you may not know a whole lot about them.

The fact is that while none of them have held elective office before, all three have pretty impressive resumes to put before the voters of their respective districts.

The 1st and 2nd districts each take up part of Hamilton County, while the 8th District starts in Butler County and ranges well north of Dayton up to the western edge of Ohio. The 2nd District includes a lot of real estate besides a piece of Hamilton County – Clermont, Brown, Adams, Highland and Pike counties, along with parts of Scioto and Ross counties.

Tim Burke, the chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party speaks highly of the two candidates in his county, as one might imagine. He said he has also been impressed by what he has seen from Poetter.

“These candidates are not nobodies who can be written off as sacrificial lambs,’’ Burke said, noting that both Kundrata and Tyszkiewicz have paid campaign staff working for them.

But still, they are running in tough districts for Democrats in what many political observers believe is shaping up to be a Republican year.

Chabot won re-election in 2012 in the 1st District with 58 percent of the vote, while Democrat Jeff Sinnard – who said he put his name on the ballot because no one else would and hardly campaigned – took 37 percent. Libertarian and Green Party candidates split the remaining 5 percent.

Chabot out-performed the GOP presidential candidate at the top of the ticket, Mitt Romney, who had 52 percent of the 1st District vote.

Wenstrup, after causing a sensation by knocking off incumbent Jean Schmidt in the 2012 GOP primary, won the general election with 59 percent of the vote. William R. Smith, a truck driver from Pike County, did little campaigning but won 41 percent of the vote in the 2nd District.

Wenstrup, too, out-performed Romney in the sprawling 2nd District. The GOP presidential nominee took 55 percent of the vote.

In Boehner’s 8th Congressional District, it was no contest. Boehner had no opposition on the ballot; and a write-in candidate hauled in a grand total of 62 votes. Romney, meanwhile, won 62 percent of the vote in Boehner’s district.

So, who are these Democrats willing to take on these seeming GOP behemoths?

Kundrata, who is challenging Chabot in the 1st District, is a business owner, attorney, airline pilot and retired Air Force pilot who, in 1991, flew combat missions in the Persian Gulf War and later served in Bosnia and Herzegovina in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Two years ago, he ran as a Republican in the 2nd District primary which Wenstrup won over Schmidt. In April, he told WVXU that it was during that campaign that he realized he was, in fact, a Democrat, saying he thought the Republican Party “was far more moderate.” He said he learned differently when he saw the influence the tea party movement had on the GOP.

On his campaign website, Kundrata says that he is “proud to have served my country as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. But I worry because America’s system of institutions only succeed when it is guided by leaders who act responsibly – leaders who put the common good before any individual claims.”

Tyszkiewicz is a 48-year-old actuary, small business owner and former high school math and physics teacher from Anderson Township. His parents are Polish immigrants, survivors of the Siberian prison camps during World War II.

He survived a close four-candidate primary in May for the right to challenge Wenstrup this fall.

He and his wife own Move Your Hyde, which operates yoga studios in Hyde Park and downtown Cincinnati.

“As a local business owner, I bring a common sense approach to government,’’ Tyszkiewicz wrote on his campaign website. “As a Democrat, I’m socially progressive and will work to protect all of our civil liberties.”

Poetter won a two-candidate primary in May in the 8th District. He grew up in St. Marys, Ohio, where he was a high school basketball star.

A graduate of Heidelberg College and Princeton Theological Seminary, Poetter taught for three years at Trinity University in San Antonio, Tex., before returning to Ohio 17 years ago to become a professor in the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University in Oxford. He is director of graduate studies at Miami’s College of Education Health and Society.

On his campaign website, he makes the argument that Boehner’s 24 years in Congress are enough.

“Boehner has held the office for 12 consecutive terms with little or no impact on the district, except to use  one of the highest positions in the land to hold the country hostage in October 2013 for 16 days,’’ Poetter wrote, referring to last fall’s government shutdown. “I intend to represent each citizen of our great district with respect, care and compassion.”  

Mack Mariani, associate professor of political science at Xavier University and a former congressional staffer, said the Democratic challengers face some major obstacles – their relative anonymity, their opponents’ familiarity with voters, and the challenge of raising money.

“This is probably going to be a very difficult year for Democrats, sort of like 2010,’’ Mariani said. “This time around, these Democrats running for Congress are having a hard time fostering outrage about Republicans in the House, when the Democrat president has such low approval ratings. People are upset with Obama for a variety of reasons.”

Raising money will be a challenge for these Democrats, Mariani said, “if the people who give to Democratic campaigns don’t believe they have any chance of winning, especially in Republican districts.”

But Democratic Party leaders such as Burke say these are legitimate candidates who are working hard to raise money and get their message out.

How much success they will have remains to be seen. All three are underdogs of the first order. But at least these three are willing to give it a shot.

It’s always better to have two names on the ballot than just one.