The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House candidates campaign on their agendas, but voters vote on Trump

Democrat Aftab Pureval, left, and Rep. Steve Chabot (R) are running to represent Ohio’s 1st District.
Democrat Aftab Pureval, left, and Rep. Steve Chabot (R) are running to represent Ohio’s 1st District. (Andrew Spear/For The Washington Post)
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Mason, Ohio — For months, a loud and acrimonious campaign for Ohio’s 1st Congressional District has played out in the Cincinnati area between incumbent Republican Steve Chabot and his challenger, Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval.

Gordon Marsh, shuffling across a strip mall parking lot, was quick with a blunt assessment. “I’m voting against Chabot,” he said. “I’m not crazy about Pureval, either.”

But Marsh said his choice had little to do with the local candidates or issues.

It was all about Donald Trump.

“I’m going Democrat all the way,” Marsh said gruffly before stomping into a Best Buy. “They need the seats. My position right now is that he is a lousy president and a lousy person.”

Less than a month from the midterm elections, dozens of congressional races are tightening as campaigns make their final push. Democrats are aiming most acutely at nearly two dozen seats held by Republicans but won in 2016 by Democrat Hillary Clinton, figuring those are the easiest to pick off.

The next ring of interest are districts the president won, but narrowly. In those districts, located mainly in the suburbs and exurbs such as those outside Cincinnati, Des Moines and Greensboro, N.C., the president’s shadow is looming so large that it obscures everything else.

The president has sought to make the election revolve around an improving economy and the dire results he says would emanate from a Democratic takeover of one or both chambers of Congress. But he has also contended that he is on the ballot — and voters in those districts agree.

Trump’s ability to dominate the political conversation has put congressional candidates from both parties in a tricky spot.

For Republicans, the risk is sticking close to a president with immense star power among the MAGA faithful but who is radioactive to other voters. For Democrats, the options are attacking Trump and appearing to be members of a “leftist mob,” or staying mum and turning off voters eager for an aggressive check on the president.

“I don’t believe anymore that all politics is local,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina. “Politics has stopped being local for a good while. Increasingly, national issues, national perceptions take over.”

North Carolina’s 13th District stretches from the suburbs north of Charlotte to Greensboro. Battered by the loss of the state’s textile industry, the region features a strong mix of left-leaning voters in the cities, conservative rural voters and a bipartisan mix in the suburbs.

Republicans were ordered to redraw the district in 2016 following a gerrymandering lawsuit. Trump won the district in 2016 by 9 points — his smallest margin in a North Carolina Republican district.

The Republican incumbent, Rep. Ted Budd, is a gun store owner seeking reelection after he emerged from a 17-person primary in 2016. Kathy Manning, a Greensboro lawyer and community organizer, is making her first bid for elected office.

Manning has steered away from addressing the president directly and insisted that voters are talking about “kitchen table issues.” Still, without mentioning Trump by name, she said voters are fed up with the atmosphere in Washington.

“They can’t stand what’s going on,” she said. “They don’t like the incivility. They don’t like that people are unwilling to compromise.”

Budd, however, has embraced Trump wholeheartedly, while conceding that his style is different from the president’s.

North Carolinians on both sides of the party divide say Trump not only is a significant part of the decision between Budd and Manning, but has also changed the tenor of local politics.

On a rainy Tuesday night last week, as voters gathered at a forum for local candidates in Salisbury, Anthony Smith, a pastor at Mission House Church, said he sees the race between Budd and Manning as a referendum on the president’s policies and rhetoric. The same is true for every race in the 13th District, he said.

“Trump more was a catalyst to energize something that was already there, that never left our culture,” he said. The timbre of the races has become more contentious in the past two years, sometimes devolving into name-calling and animus, Smith said. In August, tempers flared after someone defaced a Confederate monument that stands just outside city hall. Later, Ku Klux Klan fliers tied to rocks were thrown into yards in suburban neighborhoods.

Andrew Poston, a 25-year-old teacher, said he leans Republican but would have trouble voting for anyone who wouldn’t be a check on Trump.

“Do I hope the Democrats take the house? No, I don’t. But I hope that this extreme political climate we have melts like snow over the next few years,” he said. “I hope cooler heads prevail.”

Halfway across the country, Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District includes Des Moines and suburban and rural areas west and southwest of the city. The number of Democratic, Republican and independent voters is nearly equal. Trump won by only 3 percentage points in 2016.

Republican incumbent David Young, the mild-mannered grandson of a farmer and a preacher, is the opposite of Trump in style, comfortable hosting low-key forums and roundtables where he talks about the nitty-gritty details of a pending farm bill.

Seeking to unseat him is Cindy Axne, a political newcomer and small-business owner who casts herself as the Washington outsider and Young as a politician who works for corporations and not for Iowans. If elected, she would be the first woman to represent the district in Congress.

Young rarely invokes Trump — saying he’s different, both stylistically and morally. He’s not accountable to Trump, he says, but to “the people in the 3rd District” — although he did speak at the president’s recent rally in Council Bluffs

Axne has drawn on the energy released by opposition to the president. She casts the race in stark terms: “The heart and the soul of the country is at risk.”

For Des Moines Democrat Penny Murphy, the race is less about the candidates than the president.

“Just making sure Donald Trump does not win in 2020, that we capture the seats that are open. We are very worried,” Murphy said.

Staying at home on Election Day is not a choice, Murphy said as she ate lunch at Palmer’s Deli & Market in Des Moines.

“We are trying to turn the tide in Washington and have some balance,” she said. “He darn well has come close there to reversing everything Obama has done.”

Charles Ruby, 55, said he usually ignores the midterm elections. But this time around, he voted early, stopping by on his motorcycle at a polling site in Adel, a small town outside of Des Moines. The “whole Kavanaugh debacle,” he said, is his prime motivator for voting.

“This is the most important election. As a conservative, we have to win this one,” he said shortly after he voted. “Even if you don’t agree with Trump, you got to stick with the Republican Party.”

Ohio’s 1st District includes Cincinnati’s Hamilton County and, since 2010, when the state legislature redrew the lines, traditionally conservative Warren County.

The incumbent, Chabot, was first elected in 1994. A folksy, family-values conservative, Chabot has held his seat for 22 of the past 24 years. Trump took the district in 2016 by 6 points.

The district’s realignment gave Republicans a tight hold on the seat for a few years, but urban sprawl reaching into Warren County has helped make the 2018 election surprisingly close. Challenger Pureval, 36 years old and the son of Indian and Tibetan immigrants, has anchored his campaign in the contrasts between his agenda and the incumbent’s. But he largely keeps Trump out of his message.

“My folks want me to focus on health care, the economy and infrastructure,” he said. “That’s exactly what I plan to do.”

Until very recently, Chabot also kept his distance from the president. In March 2016, when Trump was the front-runner to capture the Republican nomination, the congressman penned an open letter to the candidate urging Trump to “stop saying thuggish things.” His campaign and allies, however, have engaged in raw personal assaults, at one point seeking to tie Pureval to Libyan terrorists.

Nonetheless, Ohioans said the president was at the center of their decision.

Parking his car outside a downtown Cincinnati bank branch, Michael Southern admitted he did not know much about either Chabot’s or Pureval’s platforms. When he votes in November, it will be based on each candidate’s stance on the president.

“I don’t agree with [Trump’s] politics at all,” Southern said. “Both his opinions and tactics, and the comments about women, African Americans, people with disabilities, equality across the board.”

Justin Kittle, a registered Republican walking his dog downtown, said he disagrees with many of Pureval’s positions. “But that doesn’t shut him down completely for me. Chabot has been in for a long time. I don’t mind change.”

But again, the president was key.

“I am for the president, and I’m happy that he’s a business guy instead of a politician,” he explained. “I would want to see a Republican in office to keep his politics going.”