Incumbent Jim Jordan faces challenges from Democrats and (former) Republicans alike
By Nathan Carpenter and Anisa Curry Vietze
Until recently, Chris Gibbs, who farms grain and cattle in Shelby County, was a Trump supporter and chair of his county’s Republican Party. But after watching the impact that Trump’s trade war had on farmers in his community, Gibbs is running to unseat U.S. Representative Jim Jordan in Ohio’s fourth congressional district — as an independent.
Gibbs is just one of four candidates opposing Jordan, a hardline conservative and Freedom Caucus founder who has received significant media attention for his vigorous support of the president, including during impeachment proceedings, as well as allegations about his conduct during his time as a wrestling coach at Ohio State University. But the district in question will be tough-to-impossible for a non-incumbent to win — especially a non-Republican — in large part because it’s heavily gerrymandered, stretching across the state in the shape of a lopsided duck.
Recent opponents of Jordan’s have not received more than thirty-five percent of the vote. Yet all four candidates — Gibbs, moderate Democrats Shannon Freshour and Jeff Sites, and self-described progressive Democrat Mike Larsen — believe that this time around is different. All sense something bubbling toward the surface, a growing dissatisfaction with both Jordan’s antics and Trumpism nationwide, a difficult-to-measure shift in the discourse that, some of the candidates argue, isn’t reflected in polling data.
For the previous three cycles, Jordan was challenged by Democrat Janet Garrett, an Oberlin resident and former teacher. In 2014, Garrett started as an underdog write-in candidate and fought her way to just about a third of the vote. In 2016, with the wind of Hillary Clinton’s canvassers under Garrett’s sails, the split was roughly two-to-one once again. Then, in 2018, and with a full campaign infrastructure, Garrett only gained two points on her previous attempt, even as the much-discussed Blue Wave swept Democrats into office across the country.
The latest batch of candidates believe that dissatisfaction with Jordan has grown since Garrett’s last campaign. “A lot of what Janet was fighting against, especially in those early races, was Jordan was always awful, but people didn’t know it until the very end of the third cycle,” Freshour said. “They [knew] he was sort of an Ohio congressman in a gerrymandered district who was awful. But once he gained national attention, a broader group of people — both within the district and outside the district — have wanted to be involved in helping remove him from office.”
Across the board, the anti-Jordan contenders believe that the district’s declining faith in Jordan is due, in part, to his allegiance to the president, whose impeachment trial earlier this year was highly publicized and divisive. For the first time in American history, a member of the Senate, Mitt Romney, voted to remove a sitting president from his own party. But Jordan is among those who have stayed firmly by the president’s side. “[Jordan’s] really stepped up as being the most vocal of all the Trump people,” Larsen said. “If and when Trump capsizes, I think Jordan will be the last rat off that ship.”
This idea that the current administration’s political controversies are just now starting to register with voters in Ohio’s fourth seems to be a common theme. But despite the optimism that Democrats in Ohio — and Gibbs as an independent — are projecting, the numbers don’t quite back the theory up. According to data collected by Morning Consult, Trump’s approval in Ohio was forty-eight percent in November 2018, the same month the national Blue Wave failed to boost Garrett in any meaningful way. Sixteen months and one impeachment trial later, the numbers haven’t really budged — February 2020 data show a relatively unchanged forty-eight percent statewide approval.
Gibbs thinks the numbers lend themselves to an armchair view that don’t accurately reflect realities on the ground. He sees the continued emergence of a populist rhetoric that is solely focused on tearing people down, and an electorate growing sick of the dysfunction. Garrett largely agrees, arguing that she sees a mounting opposition to Trump — and by extension Jordan — that will make this race different than the three times she ran. “I am very optimistic this time,” Garrett said. “I am very skeptical that Trump’s numbers haven’t dropped. I mean I’ve seen the polls, but I’m very skeptical because every place I go, I talk to people who are not Republicans anymore.”
The four candidates disagree on the best path to remove Jordan from office. After working on Garrett’s campaign in 2018, Larsen, a former TV writer and comedian, thinks that a Democratic candidate will be most successful by doubling down on more progressive issues like gun control, the climate crisis, and bringing broadband internet to rural communities. “As I traveled around the district, I kept running into Democratic candidates for various offices that seemed to think the only way to win in central Ohio was to run as half a Republican, pretending to be more moderate than they really were — and they lost anyway,” Larsen said. “Meanwhile, Sherrod Brown ran true to his progressive values. He talked about unions and funding Planned Parenthood and fighting climate change and he won.”
Following this realization, Larsen searched for a progressive congressional candidate wh could both embody these values and follow through on an attempt to unseat Jordan. “I went into this election this year hoping to find a candidate I could back that would run against Jim Jordan as a real progressive,” Larsen said. “And just sitting down with the other two that had announced, I liked them both personally quite a bit, but was disappointed that they were both running as kind of watered-down Democrats, as moderates. And so that is what kind of informed my decision to get in myself.”
Gibbs, a moderate who comes from a conservative background, believes that approaching the race from the middle of the road will give him a competitive edge, particularly given the way the district is drawn. “Regardless of the quality of the Democratic challenger, because of the gerrymandering, there’s just no mathematical path for a Democrat,” Gibbs said. “For me, I’m running as an independent. … I’m not shackled by ideologies and the mathematics here are clear. I’ve done the polling and the polling shows that there is a path for an independent candidate who … doesn’t owe either of the parties anything.”
Freshour also hopes her pledge to work across the aisle will motivate voters who are hesitant about party-line politics. “I think that you need to be willing to be pragmatic enough that you can get something accomplished and sometimes you have to accept that you can’t get everything at once,” she said. “I think that a lot of times people want to be like, we’re going to switch to this whole new system immediately. And there’s a backlash because people generally don’t like change.”
Sites, an Army veteran and single father running as a Democrat, also hopes to pull from a more cautious voter base. “If you really look and listen to the people of the Ohio fourth, there’s a lot of moderates out there because there’s an older demographic to the Ohio fourth,” he said. “So me being a moderate, I think I can go out and grab those independents, even as far as the right-leaning independents towards the Republican side, and pull them back to me. I think that’s the key in this whole race.”
The Democrats are, at least in part, banking on Gibbs to split Jordan’s support and create a feasible path for a liberal candidate. “What makes this year different is that there is a third party well-funded candidate that will be on the ballot in November,” said Larsen. “Without that second Republican on the ballot, I don’t know that there would be a path for a Democrat, but that opens up a lane for us.”
Jordan’s team did not respond to a request for comment.
Gibbs, of course, does not agree that the best he can do is draw enough votes away from Jordan to put a Democrat in office. “There is zero chance a Democrat’s gonna win this district — zero,” Gibbs said. “They just don’t have a chance. There’s just no mathematical formula. … I don’t believe that the Democrats are gonna win even with me in it. So I’m not running this thing to make sure somebody else wins. I’m running it to make sure I win.”
The race to unseat Jordan is taking place against the backdrop of significant redistricting efforts across Ohio, as well as projections that the state could lose another congressional seat following this year’s Census. (It dropped two seats the last time around.) These changes could leave districts across Ohio, including the fourth, unrecognizable — meaning that the candidates are running to represent constituents who might not even be theirs in a few years.
Should a Democrat succeed in toppling Jordan, Freshour wonders if that flipped seat would be eliminated by Republicans when it becomes time to redraw the district lines. “[If] one seat is going to have to go…that’s where they’re going to [cut],” Freshour said. “It makes the most sense just from watching Republicans for years on end. … I don’t know that for certain; it’s [an] absolute supposition on my part.”
The recent history of census-based redistricting in Ohio lends her theory some support. In 2010, when Ohio Republicans firmly controlled the redistricting process, they needed to find a way to shed two of the state’s eighteen congressional seats. Many of the lines were already so heavily gerrymandered that the redistricting committee, made up largely of Republicans, had a hard time finding a Democratic district to eliminate. It initially appeared that Jordan’s seat was going to be targeted, particularly following a public conflict with then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, also from Ohio.
Ultimately, the new plan eliminated three other districts and added a new one. Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur found their districts merged, and Kaptur, who continues to represent the ninth district to this day, came out on top in a primary battle. Similarly, Democrat Betty Sutton found her district folded into another, which was notably more conservative (she then lost a general election to Jim Renacci). That district continues to be represented by a Republican, Anthony Gonzalez. Finally, the committee consolidated a new district, the third, to concentrate voters in Columbus, preserving Republican control outside of the city.
The new map preserved a 12–4 Republican congressional majority, largely equivalent to the 13–5 split that had existed prior to the 2010 Census. Almost from the jump, fair districting advocates decried the map as a case of blatant gerrymandering — the fourth district is a key area of contention, as is Beatty’s district, which is barely contiguous in some places. (A judge ruled the new map unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court delayed any adjustments until after the 2020 census.) Still, the fact that the fourth district was rumored to be disposable ten years ago, coupled with the desire of Ohio Republicans to maintain an outsized congressional majority, could leave a potential Democratic victor in the district vulnerable during the next redistricting process.
On the other hand, in 2018, voters approved a constitutional amendment dictating that future congressional maps must be approved by sixty percent of both the State Senate and State House overall, and by at least fifty percent of the state legislature’s two most represented parties, currently Republicans and Democrats. Should this level of consensus not be achieved, the map will be held to less stringent approval standards — still, many across the state hope that the new process will allow for more accurate congressional representation.
In some ways, this packed race in a largely rural district in Ohio is a microcosm of the hopes and worries of Democrats nationwide as the election approaches. A good portion of the optimism about beating Jordan seems to be riding on the idea that large chunks of the district (and, by extension, the country) are just around the corner from waking up and realizing they don’t approve of the chaos the Trump administration has inspired. Depending on where you stand, this view is either evidence of an increasingly polarized country, or an indication that something is going on here that the polls just aren’t picking up on.
At the heart of the race against Jordan are four people who believe that something needs to give — and that they’re the one to pick up the pieces once it does. But even if new candidates ultimately fall short, as Garrett did three times, their candidacy changes things. New voters get registered. Residents who live in districts that aren’t normally competitive get to hear from politicians more often. People become more aware of politics and its impact on their lives. “I think that it’s really easy to get discouraged and just shut down,” Garrett said. “I see a lot of people doing that … and I think it’s so important, especially at this point in history, that we have to pay attention to what’s going on.” ■
Nathan Carpenter is editor-in-chief of The Oberlin Review.
Anisa Curry Vietze is news editor of The Oberlin Review.
Cover graphic of Ohio’s fourth district by Kevin Huber for Belt Magazine.
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