Justin Coussoule isn't afraid of competition.
That's a good thing, considering that he's running this November to remove U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner from the Congressional seat he's held for the past 20 years.
This is Coussole's first run for political office of any kind. He says he's getting used to explaining why he is gunning for such big game on his first outing.
"I do get asked that question a lot," Coussoule says. "But the only sure thing is that if he runs unopposed, he wins."
The Liberty Township resident acknowledges that his being chosen as Boehner's opponent, in part, came from the lack of a "deep bench" in the local Democratic ranks.
"We didn't have a lot of options," he says. "There's just nobody else to step up."
Some of those thin ranks might be due to Boehner's long reign as the 8th District representative; in the past two elections, the West Chester Township resident won more than 60 percent of votes, dominating his opponents.
But Coussoule, a Democrat, says he hopes to ride the wave of anti-incumbent sentiment that appears poised to put a number of new Republicans — and possibly a Tea Partier or two — into elective office.
"If (the anti-incumbent wave) happens, it could affect Democrats because we have more incumbents, but it cuts both ways," he says. "John Boehner has lost the enthusiastic support from even the enthusiastic Republicans in the district.
"I really think it's a bit of a perfect storm here."
Alliea Phipps agrees. Coussoule's campaign manager and a long-time political operative in Ohio, Alabama and Georgia, Phipps says she's working for the dark horse candidate, in part, due to her own frustration with Washington.
"Like most people, I'm angry,” she says. “I'm tired of being lied to for years and years. I think people in this district have not been getting served for years. It was not a hard decision for me."
For his part, Coussoule plays on his outsider status. He (and his Web site's biographical content) emphasize the diversity of his background: his graduation from West Point Military Academy and service in the U.S. Army, his work as an attorney and his side ventures into real estate rehab work.
"I'm a citizen, a taxpayer, a veteran, a lawyer, a small business owner, a worker, a husband and a father," he says, rolling off the qualifications with the reflexive ease of someone who's pitched that line for the duration of an election season. He argues, though, that it's more than talk — that his qualifications make him ideal for a Congressional seat.
"I can tell you there's a lot of commonality in the traits you want for these jobs," he says. His Web site plays the same card, emphasizing the selflessness required of a military leader or dedicated lawyer. But Coussoule focuses on a different aspect of his background: The fact that he's been part of the electorate, rather than the elected few, for his working life.
"It's about being engaged and involved on all these fronts," he says. "I've been living the things (Congress) talks about all the time."
According to Phipps, that message is resonating with 8th District voters.
"It's incredible to be out and to have someone walk up to you at a fair and say, 'I realized I've been a Republican all my life, but I'm voting for Justin,'" she says, explaining that five such voters volunteered to take part in radio ads for Coussoule. "These are people coming out and saying, 'Here's my story; I want to tell it.' "
Coussoule's optimism, and that of his supporters, makes sense in context; these are quotes from experienced interviewees to the press, after all. But what is his real chance of success in the election? Is there a way to judge how the rookie Democrat's first run for office will turn out?
Boehner's campaign was contacted for a comment, as was the Butler County GOP. Neither returned calls.
But pollsters may provide some information. The HRC Legacy PAC, which lists its support of Coussoule as the only current action item on its Web site, released a voter opinion poll Oct. 9 looking at Ohio's 8th District. One might expect that an organization supporting one candidate would release poll numbers skewed to make their candidate look good.
When asked if Coussoule was a viable opponent to Boehner, 18.8 percent of respondents said "yes," while 34.4 percent answered "no" and slightly more than half (50.4 percent) responded that they "needed more information."
Slightly more than one quarter of the voters polled reported knowing who Coussoule is (versus 74 percent for Boehner), and Boehner beat Coussoule 30.4 percent to 19.6 percent in the obligatory "who do you plan to vote for" question.
HRC Legacy makes an attempt at spinning this final set of numbers, arguing that the 50 percent of voters who answered "unsure" to the question mean a potential game changer of votes for Coussoule's taking. But the PAC, in an abbreviated poll report, then acknowledges that part of that undecided 50 percent includes respondents who said they don’t plan to vote in November.
Statistics from a less biased source, the University of Cincinnati's Institute for Policy Research, don't paint a much better picture for the Democrat. An Oct. 15 poll focusing on the Ohio Governor and State Senate races reported stats on the general leanings of Ohio's voters.
"In the fall of 2008, the Ohio Poll found self-identified Democrats outmatched Republicans in excitement about the election and intent to turn out and vote," the report states. "This current snapshot of the Ohio electorate finds that as of mid-October 2010, the tide has turned. Self-identified Republicans now hold an advantage over Democrats in both excitement and turn out intent, resembling advantages Democrats held in 2008."
The Institute credits some of that turnaround to Tea Party momentum, which might or might not fall in favor of Boehner, a longtime Washington stalwart. Nevertheless, the poll makes a strong suggestion about the challenge Coussoule faces.
Adding to the evidence of a — to put it mildly — uphill struggle is the financial difference between the two candidates’ campaigns. According to records reported by OpenSecrets.org, as of Sept. 30 Coussoule’s campaign had raised slightly more than $167,000. It had spent slightly less than $103,000 of that amount.
In contrast, the Boehner campaign raised more than $7.3 million and had spent more than $6.3 million in the same period.
Coussoule concedes that — given the multiple economic, name recognition and experiential differences between him and his opponent — the election really isn't about him.
"I acknowledge this race is going to be about John Boehner; voters are going to go to the polls and make a decision about Boehner. It's not just all about Boehner, but I think it's an overwhelming factor in this race."
He's quick to add another factor that he sees playing into the campaign, the stakes for the candidates. While Boehner might make news if he isn't elected, or isn't elected as House Majority Leader in the event of his election and a Republican majority coming to power, Coussoule doesn't have those distractions.
"You don't have much to lose," he says. "It gives you lots of latitude.
"(Boehner's) got a lot to lose, the Republican Party's got a lot to lose. I think the downside for me is much more minimal."
And the soldier-turned-attorney maintains his optimism as the campaign trudges into its final days. If he can just meet enough people, get his name and youthful face in enough minds, he seems to reason, the option to select a candidate outside the status quo could still make him a contender.
"What more would people have me be, another career politician? People don't want that now. I'm not saying I'll definitely win, but one thing I'm sure of is how much less support and engagement John Boehner has in this election than he thinks."