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O Plumber, Where Art Thou?

Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 11:42 PM

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GOP candidate for the 9th Congressional District, Sam Wurzelbacher (Plain Dealer photo)

Yesterday, the City Club of Cleveland held its scheduled debate between the two candidates running for Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, namely Democratic incumbent Marcy Kaptur, and Republican challenger Samuel Wurzelbacher. But Wurzelbacher was a no show, and critics - including some in his own party – say they’re not surprised. Ideastream’s Brian Bull reports on a campaign style that’s so grassroots…it’s practically underground.

Without a debate opponent, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur instead spoke of her political career and plans for another term, while standing near an empty chair.  Unlike Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention, Kaptur didn’t pretend it was her political opponent.  But she didn’t let Wurzelbacher’s absence go untouched, either.

“I’m disappointed that my opponent…the endorsed candidate of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, and the other county parties in our district, decided he had more important things to do,” Kaptur told the audience. “I think he owes it to the voters to share his positions.  Some of which are frankly, quite extreme.”

Steven Kraus can relate to the empty chair.  The Huron auctioneer says when he and Wurzelbacher were competing in the GOP primary, they were invited to a Sandusky debate sponsored by the NAACP. Kraus says his opponent went AWOL that day…and he’s seeing it again and again in the race against Kaptur.

“I think the voters should demand their money back,” says Kraus. “He promised he was gonna run a race.  Y’know, he brought in a lot of money, outside money and outside influence, and he’s not running that race.  If he wasn’t intending to win, then he should’ve let some candidate – like myself – who did want to win and represent the people of Ohio, win in the primary.”

Another Republican scratching their head is Maggie Thurber, former GOP Lucas County Commissioner turned blogger.  While unable to do an interview for this story, she allowed us to quote from her blog, Thurber’s Thoughts. In it, she notes that Wurzelbacher’s campaign website has no scheduled events, and his most recent press release was from June 29th. 

“This is no way to win a campaign,” she writes. 

And a recent Toledo Blade story has a photo of a reporter knocking on the door of Wurzelbacher’s campaign headquarters, which looks empty.  The porch has several piled up newspapers and a crumpled yard sign.  When I called Wurzelbacher’s listed campaign manager, he told me he no longer worked for the candidate.  Wurzelbacher confirms he’s scaled back.

“It has pretty much scaled down to myself and a few volunteers that I have, it varies anywhere from 15 to 20.”

The war chest is also scaled back. The FEC shows that out of $330,000 donated to Wurzelbacher’s campaign – mostly from outside Ohio – he has $15,000 left.  Marcy Kaptur has more than $160,000, after sinking $1 million to defeat Congressman Dennis Kucinich in a bruising primary earlier this year.

For all the fame Wurzelbacher got for confronting Barack Obama on small businesses and taxes in 2008, you’d think “Joe the Plumber” might be a headliner at any number of Republican events, including fundraisers and stump speeches.  But Wurzelbacher says it’s not his thing.

“I don’t think going to events and holding up signs really make people vote for you,” says Wurzelbacher. “If you want to talk to the choir, that’s essentially what I’d be doing by going to these events they host.  I’ve been to them throughout the primary, and it’s the same 50 people, the same 100 people.”

Wurzelbacher says instead, he likes driving around the 9th District, talking to people face-to-face.  Joel Lieske, a political science professor at Cleveland State, says that populist, grassroots approach might work for a school board election, but not so much for a Congressional race.

“He can’t connect with 700,000 people, going door-to-door,” says Lieske. “ There’s sort of a two-step process in running a Congressional campaign.  You have to get the money so you can connect with the voters through the media.  Also campaign rallies are important too, because you help mobilize your core supporters who go out and campaign for you.”

Wurzelbacher feels that his campaign style will work. And if not, he says he’ll be a more genuine voice compared to what he calls the “marketing and advertising” of politics. 

That’s not likely to appease Republicans who had previously felt his name recognition and conservative credentials would pose a hefty threat to Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur.

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