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How deep is the political divide over Trump? Check out Ohio's midterm 'toss up' district

In the traditional Republican stronghold of Ohio's 12th district, what was once a sure GOP win is now so close it could go either way in the midterm election. CBC News talked to local voters to get a sense of why political feelings seem to be shifting.

In Republican stronghold of Ohio's 12th district, Democrats might win for first time in decades

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Estero, Fla., on Oct. 31, part of his cross-country tour to get the vote out for Republican midterm candidates. His speeches have tended to fire up hardline supporters and inflame critics, but the effect on moderate voters from both parties could influence which way the midterms go. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Midterm elections for Democratic or Republican control of the House of Representatives will play out in polling booths across the U.S. on Tuesday, but much of the attention will be on a few key, highly competitive seats — including Ohio's 12th congressional district.

The vote is to some degree a referendum on the U.S. president, says political scientist Paul Beck. As a result, Ohio's 12th district, "though it's a district that is majority Republican, still it makes it a competitive race."

The district has a long history of electing Republicans. The party has held it since 1983, and President Donald Trump won it by 11 percentage points in 2016.

However, a special election held here in August morphed into a closely contested race. Republican candidate Troy Balderson won by only 0.8 per cent of the vote, and it was so close that it took weeks after election day before the results were made official, as all absentee ballots were counted.

The Republicans scratched out a win in an election that was never expected to be tight. And now the Ohio 12th is what some U.S. polling sites describe as a toss-up district in the midterms.

Cook Political Report suggests the district is so close it could go either way. And until recently, the influential political number-crunching site FiveThirtyEight described the district as a toss-up, although in recent days it has nudged the district's standing closer to a Republican win.

Given the potential for a close race, The National visited Westerville, a suburb outside the city of Columbus, and gathered six ordinary American voters to talk politics at nearby Otterbein University. The diverse group included business owners, a radiologist, a retired school teacher, a lawyer and a mental health counsellor.

Three people in the group support the president, three do not. Beyond that, the discussion got more complicated in terms of party affiliations and opinions on national issues, indicating the depth of the so-called American divide.

The National gathered a diverse group of Ohio voters to talk politics ahead of the midterms. From left: Tom Foos, Mary Oehler, Davia Stevenson, Carol Freund, Steve Cuckler and Roland Medrano. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

Rating Trump

In Ohio, as elsewhere around the country, the midterm vote is being affected by reactions to Trump.

"I think he's doing a very good job," says Tom Foos, a Republican and business owner who took part in The National's discussion group.

"He's doing what he says he was going to do. He says he was going to reform taxes, he reformed taxes. He says he was going to deregulate, he deregulated. And our economy is thriving because of that."

Steve Cuckler, left, is a hardline Republican and Trump supporter from Appalachian Ohio. 'Where I grew up, we've been wanting someone like President Trump since I was a kid, to recognize the greatness of our country, to instill pride in our country.' (Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

Meanwhile, Mary Oehler — a radiologist who considers herself Independent but leans Republican — says her affinity for the Republican Party does not extend to the man who leads it.

"I agree that some of the policy things were the right thing to do," Oehler says. "My biggest disagreement with him is just his demeanor – how he goes about his business is not the way I want to see my country represented. We need our politicians to be statesmen. The whole tenor of Trump's style of leadership leads us in the wrong direction."

Beck, the political scientist, made special note of this gender gap. Although the Ohio district has historically been majority Republican, he expects a competitive race precisely because suburban, well-educated women like Oehler are turning away from Trump's manner.

We're seeing a larger gender gap than we have ever seen in American elections.- Paul Beck, political scientist

"Parts of the district include people with higher levels of education. Those are the people who have been less satisfied with the Trump presidency, and that's particularly true among women," Beck says.

"In fact, we're seeing a larger gender gap with women voting or professing to vote Democratic, and men professing to vote Republican … than we have ever seen in American elections."

Davia Stevenson, an African American and mental health counsellor who supports the Democrats, says the first two years of Trump's mandate have been deeply upsetting.

"He is incredibly polarizing … it's certainly given permission for racism, for the overt expression of racism," she says.

Davia Stevenson says she does not support Trump's border policies, but also doesn't have an answer to the immigration problem. 'It is complex and it is nuanced, but it's being presented as us against them. They're bad, we're good. It is far more complex than that.' (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

Stevenson recounts an experience she had one night soon after the presidential election, while walking her dog in her suburban neighbourhood.

"A car comes by, so I lean in and I was yelled at, 'Go back to Africa, you black B.' This is on my street in my neighbourhood that I've lived in for 17 years. I was so shocked, I wasn't sure it happened. I didn't tell my husband for weeks because I thought 'I'm going nuts. That did not happen,'" Stevenson says.

While listening to Stevenson, Steve Cuckler shakes his head. He is a lawyer, hardline Republican and a Trump supporter who grew up in a low-income region of America and put himself through school.

"First I want to acknowledge I'm sorry to hear about that. That can't be tolerated," Cuckler says.

Then he adds, "We all have life experiences. I grew up in southeast Ohio … Appalachian Ohio is actually the poorest part of anywhere in the United States.

"Where I grew up, we've been wanting someone like President Trump since I was a kid, to recognize the greatness of our country, to instill pride in our country."

Select moments from Trump's presidency were played back for the group, including an Oct. 16 tweet critics say was demeaning to women:

"I don't think Donald Trump respects women," says Republican-leaning Oehler, in response to the tweet.

"He's clearly shown that time and again, other than maybe his daughter. Although that's kind of creepy too, some of the things he says about Ivanka. I keep thinking hopefully Ivanka will take his phone away from him and stop him from tweeting, because particularly if you support him, he does more harm with these crazy tweets."

While Oehler sees a president with a combustible persona, Foos says he believes Trump is a leader who is simply responding in kind.

Tom Foos calls Donald Trump, 'an equal-opportunity abuser or praiser ... I think the substance of what he's doing as president overrides somewhat questionable style sometimes.' (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

"I think he treats all people the same. I think he's an equal-opportunity abuser or praiser, depending on who you are. If you punch him, he's going to punch you back hard whether you're a woman, a man, no matter what your race is, no matter what your ethnicity is. He's going to come at you," Foos says.

"He is what he is. I'm a substance-over-style kind of person. I think the substance of what he's doing as president overrides somewhat questionable style sometimes."

Still, Oehler — who agrees with Foos on most economic issues – says she finds it hard to see past Trump's style. 

"If he worked in any company in America, he couldn't talk to people that way. He couldn't treat people that way. And to have the person who, you know, is our representative to the rest of the world act that way is embarrassing as an American."

Immigration

Immigration and border issues have been handled by the White House in ways that tend to fire up Trump's supporters and inflame his critics.

The group was asked to review a recent speech where Trump offered remarks on the caravan of migrants from Central America that is heading towards the U.S. border.

President Trump said: "I think some bad people started that caravan. More importantly, or maybe almost as importantly, you have some very, very bad people in the caravan. You have some very tough criminal elements within the caravan. But I will seal off the border before they come into this country and I'll bring out our military. Not our reserves, I'll bring out our military."

Mary Oehler, right, tells The National's discussion group that she has issues with how the president portrays immigrants as criminals. 'We need to have control of our borders, but that doesn't mean we need to turn everyone away.' (Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

Asked whether the president was politicizing the migrants' plight, Foos says, "We are not against immigration, we are against illegal immigration.

"Illegal immigration is bad for the illegal immigrants. They get exploited. They're not getting paid a fair wage. They're not being taken care of. The journey here to the United States is very dangerous ... we have a great need for labour in this country, okay, and it's gonna help people achieve some of their dreams. But it's got to be done legally."

Oehler takes issue with Trump portraying immigrants as dangerous.

"He doesn't know who those people are, so I mean how can he say that they're all criminals? We need to have control of our borders but that doesn't mean we need to turn everyone away. I don't think you should be separating parents from children, I don't think you can just blanket turn people away."

She adds, "I do think you need to figure out who people are and go through the process to decide who we are going to accept as refugees. But he wants to make it, again, the politics of identity. We're turning them away because of where they're coming from."

Democrat Stevenson concedes she does not support Trump's policies, but also doesn't have the answer to the immigration problem.

"I think what I'm up against is that it is complex and it is nuanced, but it's being presented as us against them. They're bad, we're good. It is far more complex than that. If it wasn't, then we would have some sort of a solution."

National divide

The U.S. is a divided nation heading toward a crucial midterm election. Everyone in the Ohio group told stories of tension in their families and among friends on the subject of politics and President Trump.   

Roland Medrano, a businessman with a Republican leaning but also a Trump critic, described visiting his family in southern Florida.

Roland Medrano, a businessman who votes Republican, is also a critic of Trump and his policies. He says it makes gatherings with his hard-core Republican family awkward. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

"My dad is 91, a hardline Republican. I call my sister a Fox Republican — you know, that [Fox news] is all she repeats. That's their belief. And they think, 'You married a mid-Western woman, live in Ohio, what happened?'" says Medrano.

He adds that broaching politics when he gets together with family is difficult.

"I will tell you, with my sister, we just don't talk about it. We just don't have a conversation. Or my dad says, 'Please, let's not have that conversation.'"

Stevenson sympathizes, although her experience with America's expanding social and political divisions is more personally threatening.

"You cannot have a conversation where you avoid Trump … because he is such a polarizing figure," Stevenson says.  "And it is scary for me to say, in the country that I love, that I fear on a regular [basis] for my sons … I fear for them. I've watched them try not to be demoralized when they have interactions with law enforcement or even just their friends. As things have changed in this climate, friendships are different."

Asked if she's hopeful that the midterm elections can change things, she replies: "Yes, because of that feeling I would get with every inauguration — that wow, we do have this peaceful exchange of power.

"So I am hopeful ... I'm not joyful. Maybe that's what it is. There's something – the shine has gone for me right now."


Watch Rosemary Barton's story on the political divide in Ohio's 12th Congressional District, from The National:

Ohio's 12th Congressional district is one Democrats are hoping to win for the first time in decades. That's saying a lot, since it has a long history of electing Republicans. The party has held it since 1983, and President Donald Trump won it by 11 percentage points in 2016. 17:35


About the Author

Carmen Merrifield

Current affairs producer for The National

Carmen Merrifield is a producer with CBC's The National. She has produced news, current affairs and documentaries for CBC throughout Canada, the U.S., Latin America, Afghanistan and Europe.

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