Rival Ohio incumbents can't get message out amid attack ads

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MEDINA, Ohio -- Somewhere in the barrage of negative political advertising that is saturating the airwaves of greater Cleveland, Rep. James B. Renacci acknowledges in a new commercial that neither he nor his Democratic opponent, Rep. Betty Sutton, hates puppies or grandmothers.

"It's ridiculous," Mr. Renacci, a freshman Republican, scoffs.

It's a magnanimous gesture given the overall brutal tone of this crucial House campaign. But it is tempered by his claim later in the ad that Ms. Sutton has "voted to raise taxes on just about everyone." And it is competing with two hostile ads from the National Republican Congressional Committee, the latest released Friday and asserting that Ms. Sutton -- a labor lawyer, union favorite and daughter of an Ohio boilermaker -- is pushing "tax increases for small business, devastating job losses for Ohio."

The onslaught of political attack ads pummeling suburban Clevelanders has even two of its ostensible beneficiaries, Mr. Renacci and Ms. Sutton, complaining that they cannot get their messages through. They are a rarity: two incumbents battling over a newly drawn district where most voters have not seen either's name on the ballot before.

Their contest in the odd new district, winding through the southwestern Cleveland suburbs to the tip of Akron, is clocking in as one of the two most expensive House races in the nation.

Their state is ground zero in the presidential race. A Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown and the Republican state treasurer, Josh Mandel, has pulled in tens of millions of dollars in outside money to fuel negative ads. Voters are sick of the barrage.

"People are just fed up with it," Mr. Renacci said after dropping in briefly at a Medina Kiwanis Club candidates' forum Thursday. "They're tired. They tune it out. They want nothing to do with it -- which is a problem for me, because I have to get my message out."

The race is one of only two contests nationwide that pit a Democratic incumbent against a Republican one (the other is in Iowa, between Republican Tom Latham and Democrat Leonard L. Boswell).

Redistricting by Ohio's GOP-controlled state Legislature was supposed to create a Republican-leaning seat for Mr. Renacci's first re-election bid this year, part of a broader effort to shore up GOP seats and remove Ohio from the House battleground. Voters in the new district gave Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain 51 percent of the presidential vote in 2008, and President George W. Bush 54 percent in 2004.

"By the numbers, this isn't a great Democratic opportunity, but Republicans have to take it seriously because Sutton is running," said Nathan L. Gonzales, a House analyst at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Ms. Sutton, in her third term, has proved tenacious, and this is the type of race Democrats need to win if they want to seriously dent the Republican House majority. The race is rated by most analysts as a pure tossup, in part because of the makeup of the new district. Only 42 percent of its constituents are from Mr. Renacci's current district, while 21 percent are from Ms. Sutton's. And both candidates have a lot of static to break through to reach those constituents.

"It's a hard road to climb because they're hearing a lot from outside money coming into this district," Ms. Sutton said. "The outside money that comes in without disclosure -- we don't even know who exactly is behind it -- has a corruptive influence."

Those are not the complaints of candidates feeling outgunned, just unheard. Washington Republicans appear determined to bring back Mr. Renacci, an affluent businessman who was once part-owner of an Arena Football League team. Republican super-PACs and the National Republican Congressional Committee have pumped at least $1.6 million into the district for attacks on Ms. Sutton.

But Ms. Sutton's union backers have proven at least as determined to keep her on Capitol Hill. Outside groups, from big unions to new Democratic super-PACs, have spent nearly $2.2 million on Ms. Sutton's behalf, the vast majority on attacking her opponent.

She, in turn, has not tempered her populist pitch to fit a more suburban, more business-oriented electorate. If anything, she has heightened it. "Ohioans, regardless of where they live, are looking for a government that is on their side, not on their back," she said in an interview. "I believe this is a district where the daughter of a boilermaker can still beat the fifth-most-wealthy member of Congress."

Their stark political differences have made the contest a marquee race: a small-government Republican who opposes any tax increases and new regulations against a union Democrat campaigning for tax increases on the rich and Buy America laws and against free-trade deals. In tone and temperament, they present a starker contrast than the Iowa race featuring two incumbents.

"This race is about two polar opposites, no doubt about it," Mr. Renacci said, concluding a candidates' debate Wednesday at the City Club of Cleveland.

But both fear that their efforts to reach potential constituents are hitting a wall of political noise and an electorate that has had more than enough.

Viewers in the Cleveland media market have been treated to 65,781 political advertisements this year so far, second only to Las Vegas's 71,326, according to Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political ad spending and traffic.

If Clevelanders feel picked on in their home state, they have been. Columbus is well behind, with 49,381 spots shown so far, while Cincinnati television has been treated to 35,670.

Voters in suburban Cleveland -- Republican, Democratic and independent -- use one word to describe it: disgust.

"Nobody trusts people in political office right now," said Jeff Johnson, 59, a supply-chain technology manager in Medina and a Renacci supporter.

Some say they have decided not to vote. Medina Democrat Judith Cross, 67, said a Republican friend told her that "those ads against Sherrod Brown made me feel so bad for him, I sent him money."



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