There was a time, not so long ago, when Steve Stivers, 43, could have won a race for Congress in Ohio's capital city without breaking into a trot. Young and good-looking, a decorated veteran and moderate Republican state senator from a wealthy suburb with experience lobbying for one of the area's largest employers, Stivers is virtually a caricature of the perfect Columbus politician. As if that's not enough, his opponent in the race for the four-decade long Republican seat is Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, 59, a county commissioner with a liberal history and a chilly campaign persona. In a normal year, most analysts agree, Stivers would simply trounce Kilroy. "The Republicans picked a very good candidate," says David Cohen, a political scientist at the University Akron. "Kilroy is not the most charismatic of politicians."
And yet Stivers finds himself running a flat-out sprint and still struggling to keep up in this year's race for Ohio's 15th congressional district. Polls show Kilroy leading by three to five points. Both campaigns have raised about $2 million, and both entered the campaign's home stretch with $570,000 on hand, according to federal elections filings.
A key reason for Kilroy's strong showing is a little thing called the global financial crisis. Stivers spent seven years advocating looser bank regulation as a lobbyist for the former Bank One, a longtime corporate powerhouse in Columbus that is now part of banking giant JPMorgan Chase. As recently as last year, that would have been an asset in white-collar Columbus.
But almost as soon as Stivers announced his campaign last November, Kilroy started blasting him for his connections to predatory lenders and the mortgage meltdown. "Kilroy has been coming at him like a ton of bricks for months over this bank lobbyist thing," said James Nash, who covers the race for the Columbus Disptach.
Since the outset, Kilroy has maintained a consistent lead in the polls. That's partly because she entered the race with better name recognition following her bid for the same seat in 2006, in which she challenged popular Republican incumbent Deborah Pryce. Both campaigns spent millions of dollars on nasty and personal attack ads. Soon after winning a recount by just 1,054 votes, Pryce announced her retirement.
Kilroy is helped by the district's changing demographics. For almost 40 years, Ohio's 15th was a comfortable home for moderate Republicans. Since the 1990s, however, many Republican voters have moved out of the district into the northern exurbs, says Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett. Meanwhile, Columbus's urban core is filling in with young professionals recruited by banks and insurance companies, as well as clothing retailer The Limited, which is based there. These younger voters are by no means flaming liberalsgenerally they take a laissez-faire attitude toward government and taxesbut their stances on social issues including abortion and gay rights tend to place them in the Democratic column.
All of which leaves Ohio's 15th split straight down the middle. "It's as much of a tossup district as you can possibly find in the country," Cohen says.
And just as she did in 2006, Kilroy benefits this year from voter fatigue with Republicans and widespread frustration with the Bush administration's bungling of the Iraq war and the economy. "I think it's fair to say that this environment is not favorable to Republicans," Stivers admits.
Meanwhile Stivers entered the race a virtual unknown outside his state senate district. Some observers believe he spent too much time introducing himself without developing a consistent message against Kilroy.
Not that he isn't trying. As Pryce did before him, Stivers points out that in the 1990s Kilroy co-edited a left-leaning alternative newspaper. She also appeared briefly in a documentary produced by Noel Burch, a Marxist film critic who lives in France, in which she discussed the future of the American left. As county commissioner, Kilroy voted to award construction contracts for a downtown baseball stadium to a unionized, out-of-state contractor over a non-union, Ohio-based company. Kilroy says the non-union company failed to meet contract requirements.
"Mary Jo Kilroy is on the extreme left wing of her party," says Stivers. "She's clearly steering contracts to her union friends, who have spent $2 million on her campaigns."
The Kilroy campaign struck back, alleging that Stivers used his position on a legislative budget commission to award a no-bid contract to an air ambulance company that was paying him $46,000 a year. Stivers says he had nothing to do with the decision. "Steve Stivers is supposed to be looking out for the interests of taxpayers," Kilroy says. "But his outlook is about protecting big banks, big oil and big insurance at the expense of the taxpayer, the consumer, the investor."
Another issue in the race is personality, namely Kilroy's. While Stivers is a natural at retail politics, Kilroy remains a stiff and uncomfortable figure even after 16 years in elected office. The brutal 2006 campaign did little to raise her likeability. "She's just not the most cuddly politician around," Nash says.
Kilroy is trying to increase her cuddle factor by running ads featuring glowing testimonies from her daughters, and others where she ditches her county commissioner title and goes simply by "Mary Jo."
The wild card in this race is the presence of not one but two independent candidates. One is Mark Noble, a software developer and Libertarian. The other is Don Elijah Eckhart, who has no political party backing but is endorsed by Ohio Right to Life. Stivers supported bills in the Ohio Senate to limit abortion, but opposes an outright ban. Four years ago, Eckhart won 14,000 votes, or 9% of all ballots cast, against Stivers in an Ohio State Senate race. (Stivers still won by a comfortable margin.) A recent poll by Survey USA shows Eckhart carrying 7% of the vote this time.
"You have to assume that these third and fourth candidates will cost Stivers," says Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. "In a close election, they could make a big difference."
Of course, any Congressional race is swayed by the top of the ticket. Recent polls show Barack Obama and McCain in a virtual deadlock statewide. Stivers treats McCain like a friendly but distant cousin. At campaign events Stivers talks about the issues on which he and McCain agree, such as energy and federal budget deficits. But he skipped McCain's latest rally in the Columbus area. And as for McCain's running mate, whose stances fall far to the right of this moderate district, "Palin doesn't come up too much," said Rob Nichols, Stivers' spokesman.
Kilroy, on the other hand, would love to be surgically co-joined with Obama for the next two weeks. Her flyers appear at every Obama campaign office, and her volunteers merge with Obama's for door-to-door canvassing. When Bruce Springsteen played before 10,000 people at a free concert for Obama at Ohio State earlier this month, Kilroy performed the warm-up act. In a nearly evenly divided district, taking the stage before The Boss might provide her the slim margin of victory she needs.
"Obama's coattails could be especially strong for Kilroy," Cohen says. "I think it's an incredibly close race, and I think Kilroy has the edge."