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2018 National Political Trends Echo In Turner/Gasper Congressional Race

The race for Ohio’s 10th District Congressional seat has captured a lot of attention this election season. Democratic political newcomer Theresa Gasper is challenging Representative Mike Turner, a Republican who’s been in Congress for more than a decade.

Libertarian candidate David Harlow is also on the ballot.

Some political analysts say the race reflects a larger national trend, as more women than ever are running for office across the country this year. And, as in the case of Gasper, many of these female Democratic candidates are running in districts considered reliably red.

Gasper says she never planned on getting involved in politics.

"I never dreamed I would run. And when I was on a trip and several people kept saying right after the election, you need to run, you know too much about too many things, and I kept telling them to shut up," she says. "But it all triggered ultimately to the election of 2016. It took me a good almost a year to finally make the decision because it's so toxic and negative."

Gasper is a Dayton native and businesswoman. She spent much of the past few years far away from politics, renovating bank-owned properties in the city’s South Park neighborhood.

“Gasper fits the profile of many people who have entered politics," says Lee Hannah, a political science professor at Wright State University. “She is a woman driven by these issues that also led to the women's march, many responses against President Trump and just more broadly the #MeToo movement. And she also is a former Republican who has switched parties, and she puts it that the Republican Party kind of left her. Given what 2018 brought us across the country, in some ways this race looks very, very typical.”

Also typical, he says, are the odds Gasper is facing in her race.

None of  the eight Ohio women running for national office this year are favored to win in their districts, according to Cook’s Political Report.

President Donald Trump won district 10 by six points in the 2016 presidential election. Incumbent Congressman Mike Turner won re-election with more than half of the vote in the last four election cycles.

Hannah says Turner’s years in Washington could also give him an edge over Gasper.

“Most people know his name. They know who their congressperson is and so that certainly matters," says Hannah. "Second, as a member of the House, he can do what we call credit-claiming. He can actually propose bills, he can push for certain actions that he can then come back to the district and say, look what I've done for you. And that's been particularly important with defense spending.”

Like Gasper, Turner is a Dayton native. He served as Dayton’s mayor from 1994 to 2002 and was first elected to Congress in 2003.  

During his time in office, Turner has focused heavily on military and veteran issues. He’s says he’s particularly proud of his work supporting Wright-Patterson Air Force base.

"We've been able to grow the base by a third since I've been in Congress. Nearly 10,000 jobs have been added to the Air Force Base because we have, as a community, worked not just on issues of how are we successful in BRAC, but how are we successful in all alignments?"

Gasper has also said she’s in favor of increased support for base activities. Both candidates also agree more funding is needed to expand treatment options for Ohioans struggling with opioid addiction.

But that’s about where their policy similarities end.

Gasper is a vocal supporter of immigrant rights, even speaking against the Trump administration’s family separation policy at a protest in front of Congressman Turner’s office in June.

"I'm tired of the demonization of somebody that doesn't have the same skin color or have the same first language," says Gasper. "If we close our borders, we're just shutting off opportunity for people on both sides."

For his part, Turner says more needs to be done to crack down on illegal immigration.

"I don't think anybody can say that in looking at our current immigration system that it works. People are coming here illegally. We don't have a process. We don't have an understanding of how people are self-selecting. We have security issues for our nation," Turner says. 

The two candidates also have differing views when it comes to Dayton’s economy.

When asked about a recent Frontline ProPublica documentary depicting Dayton as "left behind," Turner pushed back.

He says he’s proud of the recent economic strides the city has made.

"Our region is rebounding unbelievably," he says. "If you look at the local economy, it is on the upswing. If you look at downtown Dayton, the upswing in residential housing in downtown is occurring."

Gasper disagrees.

“We don't want to admit that's going on in our community and we need to. And I get a little irritated with my friends that are keep saying, 'yeah, but they didn't talk about what you did in South Park. They didn't talk about all the housing downtown'," says Gasper. "That wasn't the point of the story. And as long as some portion of our community is struggling the rest of us can't thrive.”

Transparency is another issue that has played a role during this election season.

Turner has been repeatedly criticized by left-leaning activist group District 10 Indivisible for All or DIFA, formerly known as Dayton Indivisible for All, for not holding regular town hall meetings with constituents.

Turner takes issue with that criticism, saying he's held town halls with other constituent groups.

“What I have not done and I will not do is participate in a partisan discredited, Indivisible group event that they host and then invite a member of Congress to for the purposes of continuing their protest," says Turner. "There are protest groups and organizations that show up on the outside of my office all of the time. And then after having staged a number of protests they invite me to come to a protest townhall - I'm not going to do that." 

Gasper, who is endorsed by DIFA, says she’ll hold quarterly town hall meetings if elected.

Polling data for District 10 isn’t available. But Wright State’s Lee Hannah says the Turner-Gasper race echoes the sharp partisan divisions he’s seeing in many communities across the country this year.

Midterm voters, he says, often make decisions based on their feelings about the national political climate.

"And so if you look at the people who are most enthusiastic, most engaged, the numbers break pretty even Democrat and Republican," says Hannah. "And so what that also means is is to get too far out with predictions is pretty dangerous at this point because it really does look like so many of these races are on a knife's edge.”

Hannah says voter enthusiasm can impact voter turnout, which is typically low during midterm election cycles.

That may change this year – voter registration in Ohio is at its highest level in a decade.