Cincinnati – Seven months ago, on a cool evening in late March, Rep. Steve Driehaus, a freshman Democrat from Cincinnati, huddled with Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper — a fellow freshman from northwestern Pennsylvania — and a few of their colleagues at Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex dive on Capitol Hill. It was the night before the Obamacare roll call, and as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scrambled, their votes remained up for grabs. As they conversed, apparently unnoticed — even as visiting Tea Party activists munched on chips and salsa at the next table – the Democrats focused on the issue that had haunted them since the debate began: the health-care bill’s abortion language.
For months, Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) had been leading their cause, battling to gut the bill of abortion funding. Stupak, to the relief of his acolytes, had taken a dogged public position and seemed unwilling to waver on his principles. Yet as the clock ticked, Stupak and the White House were negotiating on a complicated compromise: If Stupak and his followers voted for the bill, President Obama would issue an executive order prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion. With the president advocating the merits of such an order, the pro-life Democrats mulled their options: Stick with Stupak and accept the deal, or drop out, thwarting Pelosi.
House Republican leader John Boehner, who grew up in the Cincinnati area and whose district is in southwestern Ohio, knew that Driehaus would be one to watch in the final hours. A couple of days earlier, reflecting on the upcoming vote in his private Capitol office, Boehner told me that, politically, Driehaus would be a “dead man” if he sided with a Democratic deal on abortion.
“I’ve always thought that this would be the issue,” Boehner said at the time. “This is public funding for abortion. They know it can’t be fixed.” Should Driehaus vote for Obamacare, Boehner continued, he would not be able to “go home to the west side of Cincinnati. The Catholics will run him out of town.”
Driehaus didn’t listen. At 4 p.m. on March 21, hours before Obamacare passed the House, Driehaus walked slowly into the House Radio-Television Gallery for a press conference. He stood to Stupak’s immediate right as the Michigander explained his group’s decision to back the health-care bill and its accompanying executive order. Numerous pro-life groups, suspicious of the long-term power of a non-legislative document, were critical of the Stupak group’s decision.
Seven months later, Stupak has announced his retirement. But Driehaus is running for reelection, and the shadow from March still lingers in Cincinnati’s seven hills.
Back in Ohio’s 1st district, Driehaus is struggling to fend off Republican Steve Chabot, who had represented the district for seven terms, starting with the Contract with America election in 1994, until Driehaus topped him by 14,000 votes in 2008. Chabot, a self-described “social conservative” who once sponsored a bill to ban partial-birth abortion, has hammered Driehaus on his health-care maneuvers at almost every campaign stop.
“He’s voted with Pelosi 94 percent of the time, but that was his most egregious vote,” Chabot tells me, backstage at a GOP rally in downtown Cincinnati. Driehaus’s steadfast allegiance to Stupak, he adds, “was probably the most damaging thing that he has done, as far as making himself vulnerable.”
“He was already vulnerable before that,” Chabot adds, “and I think we would have beaten him even without that vote, but he led people here to believe that he was going to vote against it. The Democratic leadership was clearly working on him, and, ultimately, they got him.”
As voters prepare to head to the polls, Driehaus, a 44-year-old former community organizer, is flailing, trying at the eleventh hour to cut his Pelosi ties. In a chat with Cincinnati.com last week, Driehaus hedged when asked whether he would support Pelosi for speaker. “I expect Speaker Pelosi will have a challenge within the caucus,” he said. “And I will hold my vote until I know who’s running for speaker.”
Try as he might to distance himself, the die may already be cast. Polls show Chabot, age 57, ahead by double digits. The latest poll, which was conducted by SurveyUSA for the Cincinnati Enquirer, shows Chabot up by twelve points, with independents breaking toward Republicans. Pro-life voters, in this mostly pro-life district, support Republicans by a four-to-one margin.
Sensing an impending loss, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pulled more than $500,000 in planned TV advertising for Driehaus in mid-October. After walking the plank on Obamacare, Driehaus was shocked to see his party desert him. “I’ve had the guts to stand up for you,” he pleaded in a fundraising video to supporters. “I’ve taken those tough votes because it was the right thing to do for the American people. Now the DCCC is walking away.”
More like running away. Driehaus’s inability to persuade his constituents of Obamacare’s great promise and supposed pro-life bona fides appears to have doomed his chances. In this swing district in one of the country’s bellwether states, making the case for Obamacare has been a challenge — especially as statewide unemployment hovers at 10 percent, which is above the national average.
“I think they envisioned the health-care bill as being something that the public would find favorable after it passed,” Chabot says. “If anything, the public has soured more. We’re reminding people which side he took, if they even need reminding.”
As Driehaus has tried mightily to defend his vote, outside groups like the Susan B. Anthony List — a pro-life political-action committee – have hounded him. Last month, the SBA List attempted to erect billboards in the district “shaming” Driehaus for “voting for taxpayer-funded abortion.” Driehaus, irate at the SBA List’s politicking, promptly filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission, claiming that the ad was false.
The SBA List punched back, suing to stop the commission from deciding on its ad’s content. An Ohio judge allowed the Driehaus complaint to move forward, but, as Politico notes, “in a rare moment of harmony, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief in support of SBA List, saying the group had a right to criticize public officials.”
Chabot argues that Driehaus’s complaining about campaign ads has done little to shake up the race. “The environment is so different this time,” he tells me. “Democrats, in the administration and especially in Congress, have messed things up so badly that our country really needs a change from the hope-and-change.” The usual campaign jousts, Chabot says, have taken a back seat to the biggest issue of all: jobs.
That’s good news for Chabot, who despite his Beltway résumé has run a low-key campaign focused on the economy and on boosting small businesses in southwestern Ohio. The health-care vote, Chabot says, has driven many business owners to the GOP side. “They see it as a blanket over the economy,” he explains. “Over and over, I hear that people aren’t hiring because they know they’ll soon be staring down Obamacare.”
In this Tea Party year, Chabot has also made sure to tell voters that he will not be a rubberstamp Republican. “I buck my party when I think it’s appropriate,” he says, noting his votes against the bank bailouts, the auto bailouts, and President Bush’s Medicare prescription-drug plan.
“I was elected in the revolution of 1994 with Newt Gingrich,” Chabot says. “For a while, we did things right: We balanced the budget, cut taxes, and enacted welfare reform. Then things changed a bit. We may get a second chance on Tuesday, but we won’t get a third chance. This time, if we’re lucky enough to win again, we need to stay true to our conservative values, both fiscally and socially.”
It looks like Chabot may get another go-round. Like the DCCC, the White House, too, appears to have given up on Ohio’s 1st district. Obama has been to the Buckeye State twelve times as president — including a stop in Cleveland yesterday, on his last campaign swing this cycle, and a trip to Columbus in late October — but he has not been to Cincinnati to stump for Driehaus. Vice President Biden has stopped by, but the president has avoided Driehaus — in contrast with, for example, Rep. Tom Perriello, a freshman from Virginia, for whom Obama campaigned last Friday.
Driehaus notices. “I am not going to lose sleep over the president being here or not being here,” he said in an interview last week with the New York Times. “I think it’s a mistake for him to ignore Cincinnati. Cincinnati was here for him in 2008, but we are going to win with him or without him.”
Probably not, Chabot says. “Last time, with the Obama enthusiasm in the more urban areas and the more liberal parts of the district, Driehaus benefited from a 30 percent increase in Democratic turnout compared with the vote in 2004,” he recalls. “There were a lot of first-time voters.” The district, which went for Bush in 2004, was won easily by Obama, who beat McCain by eleven points, 55 percent to 44 percent. “We just couldn’t overcome it,” Chabot says. “It was an Obama tsunami.”
The tides have since shifted. Driehaus, who campaigned in 2008 as a “raging moderate,” now floats alone, a Stupak buoy adrift.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.