One national pundit called it "a nightmare of a congressional race," but voters in Ohio's 2nd U.S. House District will get to choose among four highly distinctive candidates in the March 4 primary.
On the Republican side, there's incumbent Rep. Jean Schmidt (link), the woman known for her tightly wrapped hair bun and patriotic jogging suits who outraged her colleagues within weeks of taking office in 2005 for calling a Democratic congressman and decorated former Marine a coward for his stance on the Iraq War.
Challenging Schmidt for the GOP nomination is state Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr.(link), a leader of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and ardent anti-abortion activist. Brinkman believes he's more in touch with the needs of working class people in the district.
Making her second run for the seat is Democratic contender Victoria Wulsin (link), a physician known for her pledge not to accept the cushy congressional insurance plan until there's serious health care reform that covers more of the nation's uninsured.
Challenging Wulsin is Steve Black (link), a lawyer making his first run for office. Black is the son of Robert Black, a retired Hamilton County Common Pleas judge who recently died. The elder Black was a longtime Republican who broke from the party in 2004 over disgust with President Bush's handling of the Iraq War.
Writing about the race in Roll Call, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper that covers Congress, Stuart Rothenberg made the "nightmare" comment about the 2nd District race, implying that each candidate was lacking in significant ways and basically declaring the race in the once Republican stronghold a toss-up.
The 2nd District spans seven counties in southwestern Ohio, most of them along the Ohio River, and includes suburban and rural areas.
Schmidt replaced Rob Portman, the district's longtime congressman, three years ago when he accepted a job in the Bush administration. She beat then-unknown Democrat Paul Hackett in a hotly contested special election.
In her first run for re-election two years ago, Schmidt won by a slim 50.6-49.3 percent of the vote against Wulsin in what should have been an easy victory in the mostly GOP district.
Besides her infamous "coward" comment, Schmidt is known for a plagiarism controversy over a guest column she submitted to a newspaper in 2006 — almost identical to one written by another lawmaker — and a reprimand from the Ohio Elections Commission for falsely claiming to have a second bachelor's degree.
Many political observers chide Schmidt for not having a coherent legislative agenda, but her supporters note that she's introduced resolutions calling for restrictions on the government's use of eminent domain, banning human cloning and forbidding federal courts from hearing cases that challenge the Pledge of Allegiance's constitutionality.
Brinkman, Schmidt's GOP challenger, ran in the Republican primary for the district's 2005 special election in a crowded race that many party officials said split the vote. He finished third behind Schmidt and ex-Congressman Bob McEwen and ahead of Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine. Now facing term limits in the Ohio House, Brinkman is once again seeking the seat.
A printing company owner who lives in Mount Lookout, Brinkman was active in COAST's campaigns against last fall's jail tax as well as against several Cincinnati Public Schools levies. A devout Catholic, he also opposed the repeal of Cincinnati's Article 12 and any laws aimed at gays and lesbians. He filed a legal challenge to a state university's practice of giving benefits to the partners of employees in same-sex couples.
But Brinkman says his critics' attempts to paint him as an arch-conservative are overly simplistic and miss the nuances of his beliefs. He would have opposed Bush's invasion of Iraq unless the president got a formal declaration of war from Congress, and he also believes some reform of the nation's health care system is needed.
"I don't like the single-payer proposals or the current laissez faire approach," Brinkman says. "That's not working. We need something in the middle that empowers the patient."
Further, Brinkman is a supporter of government involvement in helping people attend college.
"Here's what I've learned from my eight years in Columbus," he says. "I used to think the key to everything was reducing taxes and reducing spending. But when it comes to attracting businesses to our area, yes, they are looking for low costs but they're also looking for a highly educated workforce."
Brinkman blasts a recent Schmidt vote against a college loan program, which she called an entitlement.
"Since when is a loan an entitlement program?" he says. "It has to be paid back with 6 percent interest."
On the Iraq War, Brinkman opposes any timetable for withdrawal but doesn't believe U.S. troops should stay there longer than necessary. He dislikes Sen. John McCain's recent comment that American soldiers might remain there "for 100 years."
"Let's listen to the generals and follow what they say," Brinkman says. "They don't want their guys killed anymore than you or I do."
Democrat Wulsin has run for the 2nd District seat twice before. In the 2005 special election, she lost the primary to Hackett. A year later, she lost the general election against Schmidt by just 2,517 votes out of almost 240,000 cast. This time, with Schmidt having more of a record, Wulsin says she can close the gap and win.
"I don't think she's putting families first," Wulsin says, referring to Schmidt. "She's spending resources elsewhere that should be going to our families."
Wulsin, who lives in Indian Hill, supports expansion of the federal S-CHIP health insurance program and wants a timetable for Iraq withdrawal.
"I believe we need to bring our troops home immediately, safely and honorably," she says. "(That's) as soon as practical. Most experts say that's about 16 months. ¸ We need to regain our position in the world as peace seekers, not war mongers."
Black, an Indian Hill resident who works at the Graydon Head & Ritchey law firm, supports a universal health care coverage plan that involves tax credits for companies that encourage preventative measures to lower health care costs. Further, he wants to prohibit insurance companies from using exclusionary practices for low income or ill people.
Black also supports a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. He wants to refocus military efforts to Afghanistan and believes the U.S. must do more to promote multi-lateral diplomacy in the Middle East.
Check out CityBeat's roundup of March 4 primary stories from around Ohio and the country at citybeat.com.