An unusual three-way race is underway among a group of young Democrats seeking the reliably Republican congressional seat held by a seven-term incumbent in northwest Ohio.
Even though Democrats are extremely unlikely to flip the largely rural and sprawling 5th Congressional District, Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) has been attracting motivated Democratic challengers from the district’s more liberal communities in Lucas and Wood counties.
Latta’s neighboring colleague, Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Urbana), also has three Democrats in his district vying to win the March 17 primary for the chance to face him in November. But Jordan, a staunch defender of President Trump, is a much more visible and polarizing figure compared to Latta, who supports Trump but doesn’t have a high-profile role within the party.
Amid the impeachment battle centering on Trump, Latta spent 2019 promoting bills to combat nuisance robocalls and improve internet access in rural communities, and both passed this month in the House.
Still, Latta has drawn several Democratic opponents, all political newcomers, talking about issues affecting workers and the agricultural communities where Trump ran up large margins in 2016.
The Democrats competing in the 5th District primary are Nick Rubando, a 32-year-old from Bowling Green who works for Metroparks Toledo as a cultural programmer; M. Xavier Carrigan, a 42-year-old truck driver from North Baltimore; and Gene Redinger, a 26-year-old from Bryan whom The Blade could not immediately reach.
Last year, Latta faced Michael Galbraith, a professor and investment-fund manager from Maumee, who lost by 77,000 votes. The 2016 race between Latta and Perrysburg UAW member James Neu, Jr., was also a blowout.
“I’m under no illusion that this is going to be an easy race,” said Rubando, who received the local party endorsement in Lucas County.
People warned Rubando before entering: “They said, ‘The district’s too gerrymandered. He’s got too much money. You’ll never win.’ … I thought that was crazy,” he said.
The 5th District has long been a safe seat for Republicans, who have held it since 1939. It’s also part of a political dynasty. Latta’s father, Delbert Latta, held the seat from 1959 to 1989; Bob Latta took it over in a 2007 special election.
The district includes all or part of 14 counties extending from Lucas County to the Indiana border. Trump won it with 60 percent of votes.
“The only way we can win the 5th District is if we engage with and embrace the Republicans,” said Carrigan, who noted he’s a former Republican. “If you talk to the Republicans, the race [for Mr. Latta] is already lost.”
Carrigan, a Bowling Green native with degrees from Bowling Green State University and the University of Findlay, said he’s running to fight for unions and workers.
Throughout his life he’s heard that people are upset “there’s no representation that represents working-class people. It seems like only the corporations are represented,” he said.
A Holland native, Rubando said he returned to the area this year to run for office.
After graduating from Indiana University, Rubando worked for a tech startup in Los Angeles. He was also a field organizer in California for former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who flipped a red district blue before resigning because of allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships with staffers.
In northwest Ohio, Rubando said he wants to help farmers who have been crippled by President Trump’s agricultural tariffs and address Lake Erie’s persistent toxic algal blooms.
“What inspired me about Katie, and still does, was that she was a young, first-time candidate who moved back to her hometown to really advocate for the area she grew up in,” he said. “Afterward, I started thinking about my hometown.”
In a statement, Latta said he’s looking forward to continuing his work for northwest Ohio residents.
“Ohioans expect their elected officials to work effectively to find solutions to our nation’s challenges, including combating the deadly opioid crisis, finding innovative ways to increase our energy security, increasing access to wireless connectivity in every community, and ensuring we remain a leader on the global stage,” he said. “We have made monumental steps towards progress and, thanks to Republican policies, our economy is strong and our unemployment rate is at a 50-year low.”
The primary winner faces long odds in the general election. Partisan gerrymandering has rendered just three of Ohio’s U.S. House races competitive in 2020.
Democrats have their sights set on Rep. Steve Chabot (R., Cincinnati) — who was locked in a tight race with Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval in 2018 — and freshman Rep. Troy Balderson (R., Zanesville) in suburban Columbus. Rep. Dave Joyce (R., Mentor) in suburban Cleveland is also considered vulnerable.
Rubando notes that besides rural areas, the 5th District is comprised of suburbs where Democrats, as part of their 2020 strategy, are hoping to sway swing voters, particularly women. The district includes Toledo suburbs in Wood and Ottawa counties, two of nine Ohio counties that voted for President Barack Obama and Trump.
“We’ve recognized that’s the area we need to focus on to win,” Rubando said.