Diving Into Deep Red Ohio: Ken Harbaugh Makes a Democratic Case

By Michael Wakin

On a sweaty Ohio night in late July, the Democratic congressional candidate, Ken Harbaugh, entered the Rough Trucks course at the Knox County Fair behind the wheel of a beat-up Chevrolet Silverado spray painted with “Ken Harbaugh 4 Congress.”

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By Michael Wakin

On a sweaty Ohio night in late July, the Democratic congressional candidate, Ken Harbaugh, entered the Rough Trucks course at the Knox County Fair behind the wheel of a beat-up Chevrolet Silverado spray painted with “Ken Harbaugh 4 Congress.” During the final jump of the course, Harbaugh snapped his truck in half and emerged with his arms postured triumphantly and face smeared with blood.

Harbaugh’s participation in the Knox County Fair is emblematic of his campaign, which has centered not so much on party politics, but rather on connecting with the everyday lives and experiences of the voters of Ohio’s 7th Congressional District. Harbaugh has attempted to place his campaign outside the deep division and tribalism in our current state of politics, a position encapsulated in his campaign slogans “Country Over Party” and “Service Above Self.”

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Ken Harbaugh Celebrates at the Knox County Fair


Harbaugh, 44, has several characteristics that make him a candidate with the potential to transcend party lines. He has a military background, serving as a United States Navy pilot. He was educated at elite universities, receiving his undergraduate degree from Duke and his law degree from Yale. After law school, he led Team Rubicon, a service organization that uses disaster response to help reintegrate veterans into civilian life.

David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, told me in an interview: “I see as good a candidate as you’ll ever find for the House of Representatives. He has done public service his whole life and done it in ways few people do.” He noted that the election of Donald Trump compelled Harbaugh to get involved in politics.

Harbaugh fits a similar mold of Democratic House challengers running in conservative districts around the country. He is a young, energetic military veteran who can appeal to independent and moderate Republican voters disaffected by President Trump’s time in office. Winning seats in conservative leaning districts in the North and Midwest, like the Ohio 7th, which helped catapult Trump to the presidency, is critical to the Democratic strategy in these midterm elections. By failing to flip the House, Democrats endanger a host of progressive priorities, from health care to gun reform to voting rights, and risk giving unrestrained authority to President Trump’s political agenda.

Harbaugh has run an aggressive campaign, holding town halls and canvassing across the district, which stretches from the western suburbs of Cleveland to the Kenyon campus. Taaj Davis ’19, a Harbaugh campaign fellow, said he personally knocked on more than 1,000 doors this summer, asking voters about the issues most important to them. Ohio’s 7th Congressional District has a population of roughly 700,000 people, an overwhelming majority of whom are white. Educational services, health care and social assistance, and manufacturing provide the bulk of jobs and the median income of the district is around $50,000.

Harbaugh Speaks to Constituents in Avon in Late August

On Aug. 26, I attended one of Harbaugh’s meet-and-greet events at the Avon home of Jackie Discenza, a retired probation officer and drug addiction counselor. Dressed in a button-down shirt with rolled up sleeves and jeans, the candidate casually fielded questions from the group of about 20 voters on a series of issues, including the opioid epidemic, gun control, and the importance of public service. The audience appeared receptive to his message, with Discenza saying she valued his veteran status and commitment to putting the country over party.

Harbaugh, who has raised more money than the incumbent Republic, Bob Gibbs, told me in an interview, “When I think about the values of this campaign, we have redefined victory to not just be about winning a congressional seat, but inspiring young people and getting them to believe that democracy still works, that their votes still matter.” According to Opensecret.org, Harbaugh has raised more than double the campaign funds than his opponent Gibbs ($1,688,731 compared to $749,683 according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings). For Harbaugh, the majority of these contributions have come from large individual donations. Gibbs, conversely, received the majority of his contributions from political action committees, or PACs.

All of Harbaugh’s energy and fundraising, however, cannot mask the fact that he faces a very difficult fight to win the 7th CD, which went for Trump in 2016 by almost 30 points.

He faces an entrenched, old-school Republican in Gibbs, a former pig farmer who was elected in 2010 amid a red wave that secured control of the House for Republicans after the election of Barack Obama. Gibbs has benefited from dark money groups funded by the Koch brothers, who have pledged to spend $400 million on the midterm elections to preserve Republican control of the House. Harbaugh sees outsized money in politics as the core of our current political rot. “When you have representatives who answer not to the people who sent them to Washington but to a donor class, you fundamentally undermine the whole democratic process,” he told me.  

Gibbs has been criticized for a general lack of physical presence in the district and responsiveness to voters. Amid pressure from constituents to hold a town hall, Gibbs responded by holding a virtual town hall via Facebook. Critics say he has failed to sponsor significant legislation throughout his eight-year tenure.

As of October 8th, Gibbs has yet to agree to a debate with Harbaugh, who has aggressively pursued one, even directly posing the question to Gibbs in person. When I noted to Harbaugh that Gibbs seems to have a lot to lose and very little to gain from a debate, he replied, “I have to believe that somewhere deep inside, he believes in democracy.”

Another challenge facing Harbaugh is the gerrymandered nature of the district. Every 10 years after the U.S. Census, a five-member Apportionment Board, consisting of the governor, auditor, secretary of state, a member from the majority party, and a member from the minority party redraw district lines. In 2010, the Republican party controlled all branches of the Ohio government, which gave them full authority to redraw the lines. Republicans packed Democratic majorities into four districts and preserved their own majorities in the remaining twelve districts, including the 7th. In doing so, they safeguarded their majority of legislators in Columbus and Washington for the next decade.


Gerrymandering is one of the most dangerous forces in our politics. It not only breeds indifference in voters and fuels hyper-partisanship in Washington, but also encourages undesirable incentives for incumbents. Political operatives such as Pepper say Gibbs feels no accountability towards his constituents because he sees his victory already ensured. “If there was a straight up fight between them in a 50/50 district, it wouldn’t even be close. Gibbs would be looking for another job already. Ken is running against gerrymandering more than Gibbs,” added Pepper.

For the Democratic Party, the race for Ohio’s 7th Congressional District captures several trends in midterm elections all over the country.

Harbaugh’s campaign offers a prime illustration of how Democrats can be competitive in bright red districts throughout the Midwest that took rapid rightward shifts in the last presidential election. Throughout the race, Harbaugh has emphasized his military service, shied away from directly criticizing President Trump, and refused to support Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House if the Democrats take back control.

Connor Lamb’s successful bid for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District seat in a special election in May, 2018 is just one example of this strategy.

Harbaugh told the Observer that his decision to denounce Pelosi is “not political at all. It’s about leadership and accountability and passing the torch to the next generation of leaders. I want a party that my kids can be excited about for the next 20 years.”

Pelosi is the closest thing the Democratic party has to a central figure. She has been the target of negative Republican attack ads for many years and is deeply unpopular in many parts of the country. Candidates have shown that by distancing themselves from Pelosi, they can win over moderate Republican and Independent voters. In Ohio’s 7th CD, independents outnumber both registered Republicans and Democrats. This is a statistic that Ken Harbaugh understands.

Political calculations aside, generational tension exists within the Democratic Party. Pelosi, the House minority leader, is 78 years old, Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip and second-ranking Democrat in the House, is 79, and Jim Clyburn, the assistant democratic leader and third-ranking Democrat, is 78. Many young, emerging Democrats feel that they need more representation in the leadership. “Even if Harbaugh doesn’t win, after this election there will be some sort of pressure or change in the leadership that gets some new voices into the process. You have seen how much politics changed since before Obama to now and you would expect there to be some change,” said Prof. Kurt Pyle, a political science professor at Kenyon and specialist in American politics, public opinion, campaigns and elections.

This question about how Democrats should run in conservative parts of the country illuminates another long-standing tension within the Democratic Party, which has far-reaching implications for its success in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond. This tension lies in the struggle for the identity of the party between the populist, progressive wing, pulling it to the left, and the moderate, establishment wing, pulling it to the center. This ideological divide has manifested itself on numerous occasions and resulted in poor outcomes during general elections.

During the tumultuous and contentious Democratic presidential primary in 1968, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president and the embodiment of the establishment wing of the party, won the nomination over Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war activist and stand-in for the progressive, anti-establishment wing. In the general election, Humphrey, unable to unite the Democratic party behind him, lost to Richard Nixon in an electoral rout. Most recently, this tension has played out in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

So, what is the winning formula for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond? Should the Democrats try to reconstruct the so called “Obama coalition,” the young, diverse electorate and alliance between voters of color and liberal northern white voters?

Or should they try to win back white working class voters from Northern and Midwestern states, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Iowa, that have slowly been leaving the Democratic party and supported President Trump in the 2016 presidential election?

The only viable answer for the Democrats is to impose a strategy that addresses both these frameworks. If the Democrats want to “win back majorities, [they’re] going to need to win some of those white working class voters back just because of the basics of demographics in a lot of states. It’s going to be really hard, at least for now, if they don’t win a number of seats back in the Midwest,” said Professor Pyle. Democrats must also take the time to cultivate younger, more diverse voters. This formula is especially important during midterm elections, when, historically, the youth vote is low.

Democrats should campaign with a message that has broad appeal to a variety of voters. Health care has become increasingly central to this message. Framing the debate of health care around protecting coverage for preexisting conditions has proven an effective strategy, especially after Republicans attempted and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Democrats must offer a counter-narrative to Republicans’ clear preference for the interests of corporations, wealthy elites, and the donor class over the interests of all Americans. Candidates can also talk about the culture of corruption that has transpired in the Trump era with a more nuanced tone than just criticizing the president directly.

Ultimately, Democrats must offer a positive message that gives people a reason to show up at the polls. If the Democrats hope to win elections in the era of President Trump, they must present an alternative vision for the country that is potent enough to turn out voters.

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Supporters in Avon, Ohio Post Harbaugh Campaign Signs

Harbaugh is well aware of the many obstacles facing his campaign to unseat Gibbs, whether it’s gerrymandering, PAC money, or the district’s rightward shift. These hurdles have not deterred him from staying true to his strategy of appealing to the everyday lives and challenges of as many voters as possible. During his meet-and-greet in late August in Ms. Discenza’s living room, as attendees nonchalantly snacked on finger foods, I witnessed Harbaugh attempt to cut through all the noise coming from Washington and address the concerns of voters on an individual basis. When I asked about his strategy as election day rapidly approaches, Harbaugh replied, “Whether it’s events like this or the door knocking campaign or phone banking, we are just doubling down on every element of this campaign.”


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