Yes, a Democrat could win Pat Tiberi’s seat


Pat Tiberi’s announcement last week that he was resigning his seat representing Ohio’s 12th Congressional district came as a major surprise to most people. It wasn’t so surprising, however, that there weren’t three or four Republicans who immediately said they’d run to replace him. The 12th is a gerrymandered district, so most Republicans assume that all they need to do is win a primary and they’ll have a job for life. I’m sure many were waiting for this opportunity. 

And maybe the smart money should be bet on a Republican to take the seat. Tiberi won the district with two-thirds of the vote last year. It’s only been held been held by a Democrat for one term in  the past 76 years, and that was before it was redrawn to its current, Republican-friendly boundaries. Add in the fact that Tiberi himself has over $5 million in his campaign war chest and no campaign of his own to run, and one might assume that whichever of the GOP hopefuls emerges out of the special election primary will waltz to victory. 

Republicans, however, should not count their chickens before they hatch. For two reasons: one mathematical, one practical. 

THE MATH

In a vacuum, the district leans pretty hard to the right. Tiberi, as I mentioned, won it with 66.6% of the vote. Much of that, however, represents the district’s support of Pat Tiberi specifically, not support for just anyone with an R next to their name. Tiberi is a nice guy and people like him, so he has always over-performed the partisan split in the district.

This is born out in the numbers. OH-12 has a Cook PVI of R+7, meaning that, Tiberi’s large election margins notwithstanding, it’s only seven points more Republican than the nation as a whole. Donald Trump won the district with 53.2% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 41.9%. Mitt Romney won it with 54% of the vote in 2012. Yes, that reveals a pretty solid GOP lean, but it’s not the sort of lean one sees in the impenetrable Republican fortresses elsewhere in the country. 

While it’s a small sample size, in special elections held since Trump was elected, Democrats have improved upon Clinton’s showing by an average of 10 points. Democrats are improving upon the Cook PVI lean by an average of 12 points. If that happens in this district — and there is nothing to suggest that Trump is any more popular here than he is in other districts — it’s a Democratic win.

No, OH-12 is not a friendly district for Democrats, but the popular incumbent is leaving and this environment is bad enough for Republicans that the district is no Republican gimme. A friend of mine who studies and writes about congressional elections for a living has a looked at all of this and tells me that, in his view, a solid Democratic candidate has a one in three chance to take it. That’s way, way better than usual. More tea, anyone

THE ARGUMENT

All of that is interesting enough, but elections are won by candidates and campaigns, not math. On that count, any Republican looking to succeed Pat Tiberi has to prove to voters that he or she can accomplish something voters want them to accomplish. Given the circumstances of Tiberi’s resignation, however, it’s hard to imagine a Republican making a credible case in this regard. 

Tiberi was one of the most powerful and influential members of the Republican caucus. He was plugged in to senior Congressional leaders and held a key post on the Ways and Means committee. He was so powerful and important that Paul Ryan personally entrusted him with repealing and replacing the Affordable Care ActTiberi, however,  is reported to be “frustrated” at his inability to advance his agenda and is weary of the “grind” and “public battering” he’s endured while trying to do so. If Pat Tiberi, with all of the power his seniority gives him, cannot further his agenda in this Congress under this president, what on Earth makes any of his would-be Republican successors think they can do any better?

Yet that’s the case they’ll have to make. Any candidate who wishes to inherit Pat Tiberi’s political legacy will have to convince voters that they’ll be better able to advance Tiberi’s agenda than Tiberi was. “I’m way better positioned to push the agenda of the nine-term guy who just quit than even he is,” seems laughable for a rookie Congressman, but it’s an even harder argument to make if you expect that nine-term guy to campaign for you and to shoot you some of the money from his war chest. 

So what’s the alternative for a Republican? He or she could chose to run on a different sort of Republican agenda, I suppose. That presents its own tough choice, however. Tiberi is pretty mainstream as far as Republicans go, so anyone moving to his left would have a hard time winning a GOP primary. Moving further to the right and adopting a more Trumpist agenda, however, would likely be poison in this district and in this environment. Where does that leave them? Having to argue that they are, basically, just like Pat Tiberi but that Pat Tiberi was the wrong man for the job. This despite 66% of the district thinking he was the right one less than a year ago. That’s a tough sell. 

A much easier sell is the one a Democratic candidate has to make: (1) that however nice a man Pat Tiberi happened to be, the agenda he championed was the wrong one to begin with; and (2) Donald Trump and what he stands for is not what the 12th District of Ohio stands for and that what is most needed at this juncture is someone who will fight him. Given how poorly the agenda of Paul Ryan and Congressional Republicans polls, the former proposition is not as hard as it may have seemed a few short months ago. Given the 14% spread between the number of the people who pulled the lever for Pat Tiberi and Donald Trump in 2016, the latter portion of that is not a particularly hard sell. 

Regardless of that calculation, I am convinced that any candidate with strong values and integrity — any candidate who vows to work tirelessly to make America a better place — stands a strong chance of victory regardless of their party label. Specifically, a candidate who vows, credibly, to do the following can win even the toughest district:  

  • Protecting the civil rights and liberties of all Americans and all persons who wish to make America their home; 
  • Enacting policies which help restore the value of work in America by encouraging companies to invest in their workforces, give workers more power in the workplace and help provide for a secure retirement; 
  • Enacting policies which help ensure that all men, women and children receive the health care they need and to which they are entitled as a basic human right; 
  • Commit to strengthening and, where necessary, rebuilding America’s infrastructure and transportation systems;
  • Ensure that the financial markets and financial sector operate in a manner that is fair, efficient, and transparent; 
  • Fight to protect and conserve our natural resources, make our air cleaner to breathe and our water safer to drink and restore America’s commitment to understanding and combatting climate change in concert with the global community; and
  • Whenever any of these efforts lead one to have to choose sides between the interests of businesses, the wealthy and the powerful on the one hand, and individuals, the less fortunate and the vulnerable on the other, stand on the side of the latter over the former. 

People didn’t vote for Pat Tiberi because of his agenda. They voted for him because they liked him and were in the habit of voting for Pat Tiberi. His over-performance of the district’s leanings and the district’s relative distaste for Donald Trump establish that. Given Tiberi’s failure and resignation and given the fact that Trump has alienated a large number of the people who voted for him and is utterly toxic to anyone who didn’t, the game has changed in OH-12. 

Has it changed enough for a Democrat to win? It’ll be tough, but I think it’s doable. If the right candidate emerges, it might even be easier than many think. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.