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13th District race could decide the balance of the US House

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Ryan Loew / Ideastream Public Media
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Joe Maiorana / AP Photos
This combination of photos depicts 13th Congressional District candidates Emilia Sykes (left), shown here being interviewed by an Ideastream Public Media reporter on Oct. 4, 2022, and Madison Gesiotto Gilbert (right), shown here speaking at a rally at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23, 2022, in Delaware, Ohio.

The race for Ohio’s 13th Congressional District is considered by pundits to be one of the most competitive in the nation.

The newly redrawn district covers all of Summit County for the first time in decades, as well as parts of Stark and Portage counties.

It’s currently deemed a toss-up between two millennial women with Northeast Ohio roots: longtime Akron politician Emilia Sykes and Stark County native Madison Gesiotto Gilbert.

Experts say the outcome of this race could play a key role in determining which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives.

There are high stakes at the local level, too. In this election, everyone in Akron will have the opportunity to choose the same congressional representative.

Previously, the city was divided between multiple districts.

Seasoned vs. newcomer

Sykes has represented Akron in the Ohio House since 2015. She became the House Minority Leader in 2019 and stepped down from that leadership position two years later, ahead of launching her campaign for Congress.

In the statehouse, Sykes sponsored and backed bills on dating violence, the gender pay gap and increasing gun regulations. She also addressed issues involving racism, including resolutions to declare racism a public health crisis.

Her parents, Vernon and Barbara Sykes, are also longtime Akron politicians.

The new district boundary brings opportunity for the region, Sykes said.

“What we are hoping to see is just, with the district being as compact as it is, which we haven't seen in the past, is creating more synergy and power among the residents who live here,” Sykes said. “With a pretty natural connection between the Akron and Canton area, it just makes sense in order for us to have a representative that understands and can get the needs of the Canton-area community, and they'll be similar as they are in Summit County and Northern Summit County.”

Her opponent is Republican Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, who grew up in Stark County and now lives in North Canton.

She hasn’t held an elected office, but she’s been involved in politics as a commentator, the former co-chair of the national Women for Trump organization, and has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

She’s also a former Miss Ohio.

Gesiotto Gilbert declined to be interviewed for this story despite multiple requests.

Falling along party lines

At a recent Republican campaign event in Hudson, Gesiotto Gilbert spoke to a crowd of a few dozen people alongside Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and some local candidates.

Speaking to the attendees, Gesiotto Gilbert focused on the economy and energy.

“Instead of being energy independent, we've seen what the Democrats have done with anti-American energy policy. We don't want that anymore,” she said. “We don't want Washington, DC spending all of our hard-earned money over and over again to the tune of over $31 trillion of national debt.”

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Anna Huntsman
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Ideastream Public Media
Madison Gesiotto Gilbert speaks to a crowd of people at an Ohio Republican campaign event in Hudson on Oct. 22, 2022.

Sykes has said the economy is one of her biggest priorities, as well.

She wants to put money back into constituents’ pockets through tax cuts, she said.

“Middle class tax cuts are important. The Earned Income Tax Credit - expanding that would be a big financial boon for folks, and the child tax credit, reinstating that. That eliminated child poverty in half,” Sykes said.

On other key issues, such as abortion, the candidates fall along party lines. Sykes supports abortion rights and wants to protect them, she said.

Abortion access is also an economic issue, Sykes added.

“In states where abortion ... restrictions are more prevalent, the weekly earnings for women are typically lower,” she said. “With half of the population not able to earn as much simply because there's a connection between abortion access, we're being hit with our freedoms being attacked, as well as our ability to earn money.”

Gesiotto Gilbert has said on Twitter and in previous media interviews that she supports the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and leaving abortion laws to the states.

Sole U.S. rep for Summit, Akron

The winning candidate will be tasked with being the sole voice in Congress for an area that has been overlooked in the past due to being broken up among different districts.

That’s according to experts like Dave Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute.

“Potentially that could translate to maybe federal monies, or jobs, or some sort of economic benefit, in that way, when you have somebody that will be an advocate for the area,” Cohen said.

The 13th District leans slightly Republican despite the Democratic stronghold in Akron, but at this point, the race is neck-and-neck, he said.

“I would say that this is one of the top competitive districts in the entire country and could determine who controls the U.S. House of Representatives,” Cohen said.

Campaign donations are another indicator of how crucial the seat is, Cohen said. Campaign finance records show the candidates have each raised about $2 million, with many national donors.

Party control of Congress could come down to just one seat - which is why all eyes are on close races like this one, he said.

A true toss-up

Despite the district being more geographically unified, there’s still a political divide in the new 13th district, with Democrats holding sway in Akron and surrounding areas and Republicans favored in the more rural parts and wealthier suburbs, Cohen added.

Sykes may have an advantage in Akron due to name recognition, he said. Akron resident Beverly Kelley already voted for Sykes and touted her service to the Akron area.

“She’s just wonderful. She’s everything all built into one. They couldn’t find a nicer, knowledgeable, polite, professional person more than she,” Kelley said.

Beverly_Kelley_Akron
Anna Huntsman
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Ideastream Public Media
Beverly Kelley, a longtime Akron resident, said she voted for Emilia Sykes in the 13th Congressional district race.

But the name recognition might not carry over to voters in Stark and Portage counties, Cohen said.

Gesiotto Gilbert’s campaign looks to appeal to rural and suburban voters and focuses on national Republican issues like reducing inflation and tackling crime.

At the Hudson Republican campaign event, LaRose, who was born in Akron, touted Gesiotto Gilbert’s conservative values.

“When she decided to run, I said, 'This is exactly the right candidate to represent my former home county,'” LaRose said. “She's a new mom, which is exciting. She is a business owner. She is a great conservative voice for this community.”

Cohen said many people are voting based on party, not on what the candidates say.

"I think we are so polarized that all many people care about is whether they have a D or an R after their name," he said. "I think it's a disservice to the people of the 13th Congressional District not to make yourself available to interviews and to let people know what you stand for and what you believe in, and why you think you're the best person for the job."

Gesiotto Gilbert and Sykes have played to their bases, Cohen said, but at this point, it’s impossible to predict how the voters will respond on Nov. 8.

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Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.