Heather Rose looks like a typical Mason mom, but she talks like a soothsayer.
“No one’s coming to save us,” says Rose, talking about President Trump and the current political climate. “We have to save ourselves. One day my grandkids are going to look back on this and say, what did you do?”
So, for the first time in her life, Rose is a political campaign volunteer — knocking on doors and phone banking for Aftab Pureval, the rising 36-year-old Democratic Party hopeful battling Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot for Ohio’s 1st Congressional District.
Pureval is betting on voters like Rose this November.
Pureval has been Hamilton County Clerk of Courts since a surprise win against longtime Republican clerk Tracy Winkler in 2016. Now, he’s trying to amplify that upset by unseating Chabot in a district that spans all of Warren County and the western swath of Hamilton County.
Though Chabot has held the seat for more than two decades — minus one losing bid in 2008, when the blue wave around President Barack Obama swept Democrat Steve Driehaus into office — prognosticators see it as vulnerable and also crucial to the Democrats’ bid to regain control of the House.
Winning this election will be difficult. Local politicos have pegged the race’s outcome on the turnout in Warren County, which has elected Chabot by 20-point margins in the last three elections. But it is this same bastion of conservatism where Democrats have seen a surge in enthusiasm — enough to trouble local Republicans and turn the race into a toss-up.
“We’re turning out the Democrats in record numbers,” says Bethe Goldenfield, the longtime chair of the Warren County Democratic Party. “I have not seen this kind of energy since 2008, and at the local level I didn’t even see this much energy for (President) Obama.”
Much of this energy stems from, as Pureval calls them, “pissed-off Mason moms” — women like Heather Rose. Trump’s win in 2016 left her and many other women very dismayed, so they all got together to commiserate. Kvetching turned into brainstorming which turned into political organizing.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Rose says, whose involvement mostly started at her daughter’s urging. “In one of our early meetings, we brought in somebody from the Ohio Democratic Party and were like, alright, tell us what to do. We were really disorganized.”
Goldenfield and other longtime Democrats in Warren County helped prop up this and other grassroots groups that have sprung up in the wake of the last presidential election.
“If there’s anything good that’s come out of 2016, it’s that there are a lot of folks that feel the same way,” Rose says. “Maybe there were a lot of us that were just going along and not causing waves, but at a certain point you can’t just keep quiet and let things go.”
Liberal enthusiasm can only do so much in Warren County, which hasn’t elected a Democrat for four decades. The region is a hotbed of conservatism that loved the Tea Party — almost 66 percent of voters there checked the box for Trump in 2016.
“If you support the issues that are conservative in ideology, then people support you,” says Warren County GOP Chair Jeff Monroe. “It works very simply here: if you are pro small or limited government and if you are pro-life and if you are pro-gun, Warren County will vote for you.”
Warren County resident Rusty Holman agrees, pointing to tax levies in particular.
“Pick the wildest thing you could ever think of, that people would normally vote for, and you’re going to have a solid block of people in Warren County saying, ‘Not one single dollar of additional taxes will I pay,’ ” says Holman, a self-described fiscal hawk.
This overwhelmingly conservative reality is starting to change, however, as more and more immigrants settle in the southern part of the county. It is already home to one of the region’s largest Muslim communities, and students of color comprise nearly 40 percent of the Mason school district.
The school has been rocked by several racist incidents in the past few years. Even the school board race got ugly. When Noha Eyada, a former physician and Muslim immigrant, ran for an open seat, people threatened her, questioned her citizenship and derided her on a WLW talk show.
She lost but plans to run again.
“Kids need to find somebody who looks like them, who represents them, who speaks on their behalf, based on their experiences,” she says.
Similar reasons have motivated Eyada to volunteer for Pureval’s campaign.
“There are a lot of immigrants in Warren County, so when people find somebody who is the child of immigrants and came this far, they will support him,” she says. “That’s not the one and only reason, but I mean, my kids look up to him as their ideal. It gives you hope.”
For Faiz Sherman, a longtime Procter & Gamble engineer who immigrated from Kenya decades ago, his support of Pureval has less to do with the Democrat being the son of immigrants and more to do with how he has engaged Sherman’s community.
“If you’re reaching out to me and my communities and worried about my issues, I’m going to care about you more,” he says. “(Chabot) didn’t even send a representative; I don’t think he has engaged the Muslim community.”
Chabot’s campaign did not return calls or emails from CityBeat requesting comment for this story.
Immigrants alone will not win Pureval the election. If he wants to win 35 percent of the vote in Warren County — a margin the campaign believes should be enough to win overall — Pureval will have to court conservatives. There are whispers of a “Republicans for Aftab” group forming, but most Republicans voting for Pureval already switched sides in the 2016 election.
For David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, this tracks: the midterms are typically a referendum on the president.
“Trump is the reason why there is a race, the reason why the Dems could field a top-level candidate is because of Trump,” Niven says. “Voters could very well say they aren’t making their decision based off Trump but the fact that they have a decision to make is because of Trump.”
Warren County resident and former Republican Konrad Kircher thinks anti-Trump backlash explains only part of the equation.
“There’s a lot about Aftab himself that’s been responsible for a lot of the enthusiasm,” says Kircher, now vice chair for the Warren County Democrats. “Aftab has been everywhere, he’ll go from person to person and make sure that everybody feels like he is listening to them.”
Some Republicans say Chabot hasn’t matched Pureval’s energy in the contest.
“Unfortunately not,” says Ray Warrick, the former chair of the county GOP. “I think some of the officials in the Warren County Republican Party are a little frustrated with Chabot’s efforts.”
Warren County voters already know Chabot — he has represented them since 2013, when his district was redrawn to include the staunchly-Republican county — so his incumbency means he does not have to canvass as hard as Pureval. Still, the Democrat’s campaign is impressing some Republicans.
“He’s been up here a lot, there’s more signage, they’re enthused,” Warrick says. “Historic numbers would say the numbers just aren’t there for (Pureval) but if there’s a lack of turnout of those grassroots folks, I think that’s what makes this race a toss-up.”
Currently, die-hard conservatives don’t seem to be mobilizing.
“I don’t think Steve Chabot is the kind of guy who gets people fired up,” Niven says. “He is that kind of stock character, this longtime politician who survived in a district that was drawn to keep him safe. He’s in effect punching the clock in this politics game, and that’s well and good except in a bad political year.”
Alternatively, Warren County GOP Chair Monroe is not worried about Chabot’s chances.
“It’s an easy campaign to run in my mind,” Monroe says. “Stand on who you are; you don’t have to pretend you’re different, just state those values and Warren County is on your side. The Congressman has been serving in the Congress. He simply needs to state what he’s been doing.”
According to Niven, “Ultimately this is a question of how big is the (Democratic Party’s) enthusiasm advantage. If it’s sizable, the 1st District gets a new congressman. If it’s minimal, Steve Chabot gets another two years.”
For Warren County resident Holman, a vote for Chabot is a vote to continue the Republican majority.
“To my way of thinking, probably the best thing (Chabot) can do is support the Trump agenda and vicariously do that,” he says. “Trump carried Warren County, he is quite popular.”
Meanwhile, Rose sees Pureval as the best hope for the district.
“It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, you have to demand more out of your elected leaders,” she says. “You have to. But if Aftab can’t do it, nobody can do it.”