Both major-party candidates in the First Congressional District are white, male Catholics. Both oppose abortion and light rail.
Both want to use the federal budget surplus to cut taxes, preserve social security and Medicare and shrink the $5.7 trillion deficit. Both candidates are lawyers who grew up on Cincinnati's West Side. And both have two-syllable names beginning with "C."
So what is the difference between U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, the three-term Republican Congressman, and John Cranley, his Democratic challenger? Money might top the list. Chabot raised $775,407 for this campaign by Aug. 2, at least 33 percent of it from business political-action committees (PACs) and at least 51 percent from PACs in general, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Cranley raised $255,555 by Aug. 2, at least 19 percent of it from labor PACs and at least 55 percent of it from outside Ohio. Chabot has received virtually no labor money. Cranley has received virtually no business money.
Experience also separates them. Chabot, 47, spent five years on both the Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, beginning in 1985.
Cranley, 26, was graduated from Harvard Law School in 1999 and received a master's degree from the Harvard Divinity School this spring. He is on leave from the law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister for his first political campaign.
Then, of course, there's policy.
Chabot, who went to Congress in the Republican landslide of 1994, puts tax cuts at the top of his agenda. He believes the U.S. Department of Education serves no purpose other than to spend tax dollars and that federal spending in general should be reduced. Chabot is fond of saying Americans used to pay federal income taxes of three to four percent, but now average about 25 percent. Citizens Against Government Waste calls him the top tax-fighter in Congress the past three years.
Cranley calls Chabot "extreme," a "conservative without the compassion" who doesn't represent residents of the First District. He points to Chabot's vote in 1997 against maintaining the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides milk and food subsidies for poor families. Chabot calls Cranley's account of the vote "a totally bogus accusation." Cranley also says Chabot has voted to cut student loans and Medicare charges Chabot dismisses as untrue.
Jockeying for Position
The race isn't attracting the national attention the district received two years ago, when then-Mayor Roxanne Qualls challenged Chabot. Few expect Cranley to win, but Chabot isn't taking anything for granted.
Ordinarily, popular incumbents want to delay debates until the last minute, having more to lose than their opponents do. But Chabot, saying he isn't afraid to stand behind his ideas, opted for four debates, starting in July. Maybe Chabot's style is to come out swinging. Then again, maybe he needs to. This time Chabot's challenger is a candidate much more like himself than two years ago.
Qualls lost the election by about 10,000 votes. Victory lay in Cabot's margin of better than 3-to-1 in Catholic, blue-collar Green, Delhi, and Colerain townships. But this time Chabot isn't the only West Side Catholic in the race.
Cranley also has more than a little in common with Tom Luken, the Democrat who won the district from 1974 through 1988. Luken, the Catholic, pro-life father of Mayor Charlie Luken, routinely carried the three townships that decided the 1998 race.
"I wouldn't have if I was pro-choice," Luken says. "You don't have to look much further than that."
Luken says Cranley could win. Luken won in 1988, Chabot's first congressional campaign, by 27,000 votes. Cranley also has the benefit of Luken's advice and fund-raising help, unlike the pro-choice Qualls.
Three's a Crowd?
The second Chabot-Cranley debate, at the Urban League office in Avondale, attracted a crowd of more than 150. Absent was Libertarian candidate David Groshoff, who wasn't allowed to participate. To get in, Groshoff needed unanimous approval by Chabot, Cranley and a media panel. Only Cranley refused.
Agreeing to have Groshoff in the debate was a ploy by Chabot, according to Cranley.
"He's trying to cloud the issues by renegotiating the terms of the debate," Cranley says.
Groshoff says Cranley isn't any more qualified for Congress than he is; both are young law-school grads with no previous political experience. But because Cranley has a "D" after his name, he feels entitled to limit the race to two candidates, according to Groshoff.
"I don't know what he's afraid of," Groshoff says.
Neither Groshoff nor Richard Stevenson, the Natural Law Party candidate, has raised $5,000, and both are so far exempt from filing campaign-finance reports.
Groshoff says he doesn't expect to win, but wants to promote the Libertarian platform, which holds citizens know best how to run their lives, and government should not stray beyond the Constitution. Groshoff emphasizes personal responsibility and tolerance, saying marijuana should be legalized and gun ownership unrestricted.
Differing in the Details
In debates and interviews, Chabot and Cranley highlight their differences.
What should voters conclude about the candidates' campaign accounts? Chabot's is full of business and PAC money, and Cranley's is heavy on money from unions and friends in the Northeast.
"The first thing to conclude is that my fellow Harvard law graduates have more money than most Democrats," Cranley says.
Chabot says it's hard to win the district without raising a great deal of money, and outside money has benefited both parties in past elections.
"I live by the rules as they are," he says.
But Chabot also supports changing the rules. He voted for an unsuccessful bill to reduce the ceiling on PAC contributions from $5,000 to $2,500. Both candidates support increasing the $1,000 limit on individual campaign contributions, enacted in 1974.
Chabot opposes public funding of campaigns and requiring TV stations to give free airtime proposals Cranley supports. Both say they would ban "soft money" — the unlimited donations given to political committees.
Cranley talks about Cincinnati's role in the Underground Railroad and calls for the city to be in the forefront of civil rights. Saying racism is "the original sin of American history," Cranley calls for a national ban on racial profiling — targeting minorities for traffic stops and criminal prosecution.
Chabot agrees racial profiling is intolerable, but doesn't like hate-crime laws.
"I don't think we need to get into thought crimes," he says.
Cranley says he most differs with Chabot on health care. Both say they want to return health-care decisions to the doctors and patients.
Chabot favors a program in which at least a few companies offer competing health-care plans. The proposal would provide hearings on disputed procedures, but keep health-care providers immune from lawsuits in order to keep costs low.
Cranley calls the program a "fig leaf" of a plan that failed to work when tried in Nevada. Criticizing Chabot for accepting contributions from health-care companies, Cranley prefers a plan that takes control away from HMOs and establishes a list of procedures as a health-care right.
Chabot says the federal government has no role in containing urban sprawl, seeing it as a local and state issue.
Cranley rejects the notion that sprawling development is the result of a free market and consumer choice. All levels of government have influenced development, he says, and policies should direct growth back inside the cities, where roads and sewers are sometimes underused.
Chabot was one of 13 House members who prosecuted the impeachment trial of President Clinton. Chabot says he wouldn't change anything about the trial — except for the Senate vote acquitting Clinton.
Both Chabot and Cranley believe global free trade has benefited Cincinnati. Chabot says Tristate exports increased by $1 billion between 1997 and 1998. Both candidates say sweatshops and labor conditions should be monitored.
Both Cranley and Chabot favor across-the-board tax cuts. Chabot's recent campaign commercials also blast the inheritance tax, which Republicans call the "death tax." It's unfair for the government to take up to 55 percent of a person's assets after death, Chabot says.
But what the commercials don't say is that anyone with less than $675,000 in assets is exempt from the tax — and that's 98 percent of the population, according to the Brookings Institution.
Chabot challenges the 98 percent figure, saying he is sure more people pay the tax. But he couldn't cite an exact number.
Chabot and Cranley are scheduled to debate Sept. 22 at the University of Cincinnati and Oct. 26 in WVXU-FM studios. ©