Commentary: Brad Wenstrup Hasn't Faced This For A While - An Opponent He Can't Ignore
Now, here's a head-scratcher for you.
Let's say there is an incumbent Republican member of the U.S. House – a member who has been re-elected with a 32-percentage point lead over his opponent in the last two elections.
He is in a heavily Republican district, which Donald Trump won by 16 percentage points two years ago. It takes in some of the wealthiest portions of Hamilton County, and stretches eastward to the Appalachian foothills and some of the poorest communities in Ohio.
He is running against a Democratic woman who has never run for public office before and is going to be outspent by at least three-to-one by her opponent.
Yes, there is such a congressman. Right here in southern Ohio. His name is Brad Wenstrup and he entered this race for a fourth term in Congress as the heavy favorite.
Now, here's the head-scratching part:
This seemingly unbeatable incumbent who wins elections by over 30 percentage points is running an attack ad against his Democratic opponent, Jill Schiller, a rookie candidate.
This is counter-intuitive to everything we know about politics. Entrenched incumbents ignore unknown opponents; they don't make them more well known by going after them with 30-second TV ads.
Now, granted, this is not much of an attack.
His ad smacks Schiller for being in favor of a $15-per hour minimum wage, citing a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, as saying it will cost the U.S. seven million jobs.
There may be a whole lot of folks in minimum wage jobs in some of the chronically poor Appalachian counties of Ohio's Second Congressional District who might take issue with the Heritage Foundation and gladly accept a $15-an-hour paycheck.
Is the Wenstrup campaign doing this because they are worried about Schiller, a 42-year-old who worked for 18 months as a special assistant in President Obama's Office of Management and Budget?
The Wenstrup campaign has a total of three digital and broadcast ads running currently, according to Wenstrup's campaign consultant, Mark R. Weaver. Weaver says the other two are different in tone – one is "about Brad" and his work on the opioid crisis, and the other a compare-and-contrast ad that features both candidates.
So, are they worried at Wenstrup's headquarters?
"Brad is going to win strong, but, yes, we take any opponent seriously,'' Weaver said. "We take her seriously as a person and as a candidate."
And, Weaver said, "if Democrats are more excited about this election, they are going to win a lot of seats."
This ad, Weaver said, was produced "because we think that people ought to know that her economic plan, which she shares with Bernie Sanders, is going to cost this country millions of jobs."
People close to the Schiller campaign tell WVXU that their internal polling is showing that this is a single-digit race right now, with Wenstrup holding on to the lead.
"No way,'' said Weaver. "Our polling has Brad consistently ahead. Over 50 percent. Not even close."
Former state representative Connie Pillich, now the co-chairwoman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said that if the Wenstrup campaign is not worried, they should be.
"Jill is a highly qualified candidate who is working very hard,'' Pillich said. "Wenstrup seems to be sitting back and taking it easy. No one ever sees him in his district. He's nowhere to be found."
Scott Allison, Schiller's campaign manager, told WVXU that Schiller "fully supports" raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2024.
"Raising the minimum wage creates more stability for the average worker and lifts tens of thousands out of poverty; helps stimulate the economy and generates $144 billion in higher wages,'' Allison said.
Wenstrup has one of the more interesting resumes in Congress. He is a podiatric surgeon who joined the U.S. Army Reserves, rose to the rank of colonel and ran the military hospital at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
He made national headlines in 2017 when a gunman opened fire on a group of Republican congressmen as they practiced for the annual Congressional baseball game. Wenstrup ran out onto the field and applied a tourniquet to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, whose injuries were the most serious. Scalise credits Wenstrup with saving his life.
As a congressman, he has been a reliable vote for the Trump administration.
Could that hurt him this time around, if enough of those Second District Trump voters are disillusioned with the president?
Maybe, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a political newsletter published by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"I can't say at this point that the Second District is a genuine opportunity for the Democrats, but maybe I'm wrong,'' said Kondik, an Ohioan. "It is a fact that voters don't usually back the president's party in a mid-term election."
That, Kondik said, is why "Wenstrup has to take this seriously."
"Usually if you are the incumbent you don't want to be running ads giving the opponent name recognition,'' Kondik said. "But Wenstrup's campaign may have no choice."
David Niven, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, agrees. "This race is on the outer bands of plausibility for the Democrats in trying to win back the House," he told me.
Spending money is not too much of a surprise, Niven said.
"Why did Ohio State run up 40 points against Tulane in the first half?" Niven said. "Because they can. And because they want to send a message to them that you can't get back in this game."
Schiller, Niven said, "clearly represents raising the bar from the the warm bodies that have run against (Wenstrup) in the past; she is somebody with substance."
Even if she loses, Niven said, she will have made Wenstrup work and guarantee that he can't use his campaign cash to help other Republicans.
Still, though, the Wenstrup ad on the minimum wage ad seems a tad odd and possibly overkill.
Near the beginning, there is a black-and-white photo of Schiller.
The graphic on top of the photo says in big, bold letters, Politician Jill Schiller.
The funny part about that is this is Schiller's first time as a candidate for public office.
Wenstrup, on the other hand, has had his name on the ballot seven times since 2009.
If Jill Schiller's a politician, what the heck is Brad Wenstrup?