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Politics
Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Chabot's days of a GOP-friendly congressional district map are over

steve chabot
John Minchillo
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AP

Republicans in the Ohio Statehouse have done a bang-up job keeping U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot's political career afloat for over a decade now.

But they may have hit the end of the road.

The crazy-quilt congressional district map that the Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly came up with last fall was struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court as being just plain unconstitutional and the Republican legislators were told to try again and see if they are capable of following the law this time.

And that can't really be interpreted as good news for Chabot, who has held the 1st Congressional District seat for 25 of the past 27 years.

Eleven years ago, the last time congressional district boundaries were drawn, it had become evident that Hamilton County was turning blue.

So, the Republicans who controlled the legislature then (and now) came up with a ridiculously gerrymandered district that I have always referred to as the Steve Chabot Preservation Act of 2011. The map grafted Warren County, a very red place, onto the district with a narrow, nonsensical land bridge and lopped off a lot of those pesky Democratic voters in the city of Cincinnati and throughout Hamilton County.

ohio congressional district map 2011-2020
ACLU
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Courtesy
Ohio's congressional district map from 2011-2020

The one the GOP legislators came up with last fall was even more bizarre; and, as hard as it is to believe, even more gerrymandered to favor Chabot.

It kept Warren County attached by the little land bridge for no apparent reason other than the fact that a whole lot of Republicans live there.

And, while it put the entire city of Cincinnati in Chabot's district, it lopped off a big chunk of north central Hamilton County – a chunk that includes Forest Park, Lincoln Heights, Springfield Township – and stuck it in the district of Republican congressman Warren Davidson. Davidson's district takes in Butler County, but the congressman himself is from Troy, about 70 miles north of Hamilton County on I-75.

2021 ohio congressional district map
Ohio Senate
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Courtesy

Did I mention that there are about 30,000 Black voters – nearly all Democrats – who live in that chunk of Hamilton County and who would be effectively disenfranchised when it came to electing a congressman?

Well, it does.

And there was no possible reason for it than to get those unrepentant Black Democrats out of the hair of Steve Chabot. None. If anyone can think of another reason, I'd like to hear it.

Thankfully, a 4-3 majority of the Ohio Supreme Court – three Democrats and Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, a Republican – put the kibosh on that plan and sent the legislature back to the drawing board, with instructions to follow the requirements – requirements, not suggestions, not "aspirational" goals – of the constitutional amendment passed by 7 of every 10 Ohio voters in 2015.

So, assuming the Republicans follow the court's instructions and don't provoke a constitutional crisis in Ohio, this 1st Congressional District is going to look much different.

First of all, Warren County will be gone. Probably shoved into U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup's already heavily Republican district. All of the city of Cincinnati – which went for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020 with 75% of the vote – will land in Chabot's lap. We could see a narrow sliver of eastern Hamilton County ending up with Wenstrup, but the 1st District would contain Hamilton County and Hamilton County only.

Did we mention that Hamilton County is now a blue county? Yes, I guess we did.

Under the circumstances as they are likely to exist in the new 1st District, it is not unreasonable to think that Chabot, who turns 69 years old on Saturday (Happy birthday, Steve!), might decide that he has had enough and that serving in the House for 25 of the past 27 years was a pretty good run.

Well, guess again.

By all accounts, Chabot is hell-bent on running for re-election this year.

"I can tell you that, without question, Steve is committed to running this year, no matter how the map turns out," said Jon Conradi, Chabot's Washington, D.C.-based campaign advisor.

Or as one of Chabot's good friends back home in the district told me, "Steve's attitude is that anybody who wants this job is going to have to come through me first."

Right now, the only announced candidate on the Democratic side is Cincinnati Council Member Greg Landsman.

Landsman set a new land speed record by announcing he would run for the 1st District seat on the day after he was sworn in for another term on City Council. The ink wasn't even dry on his successor designate certificate at City Hall when he belly-flopped into the congressional race.

It was a pretty impressive entrance. Landsman raised about $250,000 in his first week as a congressional candidate. That is the kind of thing that impresses the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which will no doubt target the 1st District as a potential red-to-blue pick-up in a year when control of the House is at stake.

Even so, it is hard to imagine that Landsman won't have some kind of primary opposition. It's too tempting a prize for ambitious Democratic politicians.

Sean Comer, director of government relations at Xavier University, has experience in Democratic campaigns and he is not at all sure Landsman will have a clear path to the Democratic nomination.

"This new district is not going to be a lock for Democrats, but it certainly is going to be a lot easier to win than it has been in the last few cycles," Comer said. "Just taking out Warren County guarantees that."

Landsman got a good head start, Comer said, but he believes others will jump in.

"It’s going to draw candidates," Comer said. "People are going to start lining up."

It would appear – for now, at least – that the filing deadline for candidates will be March 4, so there is some time for potential Democratic candidates to play catch-up.

Mark R. Weaver, a long-time Ohio-based Republican campaign strategist, said he thinks there is good news and bad news for Chabot in the fact that there will be a new 1st District map.

"Chabot is going to have a tough time of it this year but I think in the end he makes it through," said Weaver, who has been a Wenstrup campaign advisor. "The other guy in this race, whoever that turns out to be, is going to have a tough top of the ticket to run with."

What Weaver means by that is that he thinks whoever ends up as the Democratic nominees for governor and U.S. Senate this year are not going to be strong enough to help down-ticket races.

But Weaver had a warning for Chabot, too.

"I think Chabot will have to retire after this term," Weaver said. "The district is going to keep getting tougher and tougher for a Republican to win."

Nonetheless, Chabot, the former football player at LaSalle High School and the College of William and Mary, will likely tuck in his head and crash into the line again this year, trying to carry the pigskin across the goal line.

The only difference is there will be no Steve Chabot Preservation Act of 2022 to help him. He's on his own now.