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In Ohio's 7th District, Democrats Invest In Navy Veteran To Oust Incumbent

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Ken Harbaugh
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Ohio’s 7th Congressional District runs solidly red through a wide swath of largely rural Northeast and Central Ohio. But for the first time, a well-funded Democratic opponent with a compelling personal story is taking on the GOP incumbent.

Bob Gibbs rode the Tea Party wave into Congress in 2010. Since then, the Holmes County hog farmer has won re-election handily in what’s morphed into the 7th Congressional District. President Donald Trump won the district by nearly 30 points, and Gibbs’ congressional votes support Trump’s agenda 97 percent of the time.

Gibbs says that’s because Trump is doing well for the nation and for his district.

“The economy’s doing great,” Gibbs says. “We’re building up our national defenses again. We’ve got Kim Jong Un talking to us, not firing rockets. Putin hasn’t taken over any land in the last two years.”

Even issues like trade that aren’t resolved, he said, are making progress.

But his opponent, Ken Harbaugh, has a different perspective: an opioid crisis, health care under fire, tax cuts jeopardizing Social Security, civility becoming increasingly uncommon.

“This is a life and death election folks. That’s not figurative,” Harbaugh told supporters outside his Stark County campaign headquarters. 

Harbaugh’s been campaigning for nearly two years, with hundreds of town halls and small meetings, knocking on thousands of doors, judging a frog-jumping competition, and breaking his nose in the Knox County Fair demolition derby.

That became fodder for his first campaign commercial.

But it’s Harbaugh’s life before politics that’s garnering national attention, endorsements and speculation that Ohio’s 7th could actually be in play.

“A Mission Mentality”

Harbaugh was a decorated Navy combat pilot in Afghanistan and is one of three-dozen congressional candidates endorsed by “With Valor” — a group backing Democratic and Republican vets who have pledged to work across the aisle. After his military service, Harbaugh ran Team Rubicon Global, a nonprofit that deploys vets to disaster areas around the world.

Harbaugh said vets bring a “mission mentality” to serving the country.

“It’s folks who have served in a way that had no regards for the politics of the person to your right or your left,” Harbaugh said.

Republican Rep. Bob Gibbs (left) defeated Democratic challenger Ken Harbaugh in Ohio's 7th Congressional district.
Credit File
Republican Bob Gibbs official Congressional photo and Democrat Ken Harbaugh campaign photo.

That’s what Gen. Stanley McChrystal underscored when the retired commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan endorsed Harbaugh at a VFW hall in Canton last month.

“I’ve only ever spoken for two candidates,” McChrystal told the crowd of about 100 people. “The first was a young man up in Massachusetts, and the second was Ken.”

That young man in Massachusetts is Iraqi War vet and now Congressman Seth Moulton, who challenged a powerful incumbent in the Democratic primary in 2014 and pulled off an upset.

Moulton’s since formed the Serve America PAC supporting Democratic vets running this year. Harbaugh is a big beneficiary and, as of the third-quarter campaign finance reports filed last week, had raised $2.2 million – that’s compared to Gibbs’ $1 million.

McChrystal said he didn’t even know Harbaugh’s party affiliation when they met. What won Harbaugh his endorsement, McChrystal said, is his philosophy.

“‘Country over party, service over self.’ If we can get a critical mass of that kind of people in our government, then I think suddenly the tenor changes,” McChrystal says.

Most of the national handicappers list Ohio’s 7th as solidly or leaning Republican. Dave Cohen of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics says Gibbs fits the conservative profile of the district, but he says Harbaugh’s running a strong grassroots campaign.

“He’s able to raise money. He’s got a great story. And somebody that actually can appeal to voters on both sides of the aisle,” said Cohen.

And that’s especially important in a district like the 7th.

Incumbency And President Trump

Gibbs’ campaign has been lower key than Harbaugh’s, but it’s ratcheting up and loaded with the marks of incumbency and constituent service.

He spent one recent morning delivering proclamations to Stark County firefighters, talking with executives of the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce and touring Stark State College, where he got an unsolicited endorsement from one supporter: “Good luck, I don’t think you’re going to need it.”

Gibbs ran through notes with each group. He outlined what’s happening in Washington with tax cuts, trade, and immigration, as well as local projects like preserving the historical village of Zoar and getting the FAA to allow Stark State to set up a small training facility at what was Akron’s Fulton airport.

“I don’t think this president sleeps,” he said, as he endorsed most of Trump’s positions.

The Affordable Care Act

Harbaugh and Gibbs differ on a lot of issues, but perhaps none more so than health care.

Gibbs has voted repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act, including as recently as last summer. He says it’s broken, people can’t afford their deductibles and the nation can’t afford Medicaid expansion.

“I believe if the free market is allowed to work with competition, it solves a lot of the problems,” he said.

Gibbs also said Republicans will ensure that people with pre-existing conditions will be able to get affordable insurance, though he didn’t offer specifics.

Harbaugh said health coverage is the reason he decided to run.

“Lizzie, our middle daughter, needed four surgeries before she turned four years old. And (Harbaugh’s wife) Ann Marie and I scheduled the first one of those not knowing how we would pay for it,” Harbaugh explained. “We got lucky. I got a great job with a Cleveland firm and they took care of us. But it shouldn’t be a roll of the dice.”

That difference between the candidates and others will play out at a debate on October 29 at Ashland University. It’s the only one in the Ohio 7th District this year.

Cohen says the fact that there’s a debate at all may be a measure of the race; incumbents who feel comfortably ahead often refuse debates altogether.