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Candidates for Ohio's 6th Congressional district enter home stretch for June 11 special election

Michael Kripchak knocks on a white door while holding campaign fliers.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Michael Kripchak knocks on a door in Massillon on May 25, 2024, while campaigning for Congress.

Voters in Ohio’s 6th Congressional district have a special election this coming Tuesday. They’ll be picking a candidate to fill the remainder of Rep. Bill Johnson’s term in Congress, and in November, they’ll be tasked with doing it all over again - but to fill the seat for a full term.

“Hi. I’m Mike Kripchak. I’m running for U.S. Congress. We’ve got a special election coming up June 11. Just within two weeks here. It’s to fill our vacant House seat that Bill Johnson vacated when he went to YSU."

On a hot and sunny day in late May, Michael Kripchak goes door to door in Massillon as he tries to drum up excitement about the impending special election. The political newcomer hit the ground running with his campaign this year, handily beating his opponent in the Democratic primary in March, but for the general election, Kripchak must convince voters to vote Democrat in an area of Ohio that’s swung right the past several election cycles. And that gets mixed responses from voters.

“I’m an Air Force veteran fighting for our farmers, our schools and our unions," Kripchak explained to Glen Buttacavoli, a local lawyer who was enjoying the sun on his front porch.

"Democrat or Republican?," Buttacavoli asked.

"Democrat sir," Krapchick responded.

"OK, good," Buttacavoli said with a smile, adding that Kripchak was welcome to put up a campaign sign in his front yard.

But for other voters he talked to, like Chad, hearing Kripchak’s party affiliation elicited an immediate “no.”

"Oh, I’m not going to vote for you," Chad responded from his front porch upon hearing Kripchak is a Democrat.

A stylized illustration of the map of Ohio's 6th Congressional District
Lauren Green
Ideastream Public Media
Democrat Michael Kripchak and Republican State Sen. Michael Rulli are running in the June special election to fill the seat formerly held by Republican Rep. Bill Johnson and in the November 2024 general election.

About 19% of the voters in the district, which runs along the eastern edge of Ohio from Mahoning County down all the way down to Marietta, are registered Republicans. Former Republican Rep. Bill Johnson, who last held the seat for more than a decade, stepped down part way through his term to become president of Youngstown State University. Johnson won reelection in 2022 with nearly 70% of the vote. This is the first time since 2006 that the district has been without an incumbent.

A headshot of State Sen. Michael Rulli
Michael Rulli
Ohio Senate
Republican State Sen. Michael Rulli is running for Congress in Ohio's 6th district.

Johnson's margin of victory in 2022 is good news to Kripchak’s opponent: Republican State Sen. Michael Rulli, who also boasts name recognition in the area.

“It’s just like a local thing," Rulli explained. "If I go to Columbus or Cleveland, nobody would know who I am, but around here within like a 40-mile radius, it would be hard for me to go to like a gas station or something and somebody not recognize me.”

In addition to his two terms in the state Senate, Rulli also serves as director of operations for his family’s grocery chain – Rulli Bros. He's been hitting the campaign trail hard, talking to voters about the issues that matter to them, like inflation and border security, he said.

Although political analysts rate the district currently as safely Republican, Cherie Strachan, the director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, could see the district eventually swinging back toward Democratic leadership, she said.

“This district used to be Democrat, became sort of a Trump – Appalachia in general became sort of a Trump supporter enclaves in more recent years," she explained, "but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way.”

Rulli thinks national politics will have a big impact on this race, as the presidential race heats up, he said. He closely aligns himself with the former president.

“It’s going to be a statement on him: is Trump wanted again, or are they going to stay with the guy they already have?," he asked.

Democrat Michael Kripchak and Republican Michael Rulli will face off twice this year, during the June special election and the general election in November to fill the open seat in the Ohio 6th.

Eddie Abdalla, Chair of the Jefferson County Democratic Party - south of Columbiana County, hopes voters in eastern Ohio will be rethinking this Republican swing, he said.

"I think a lot of those folks are asking themselves, 'Did we make the right decision in switching?' Because nothing has changed," he said.

Trump won the district by 29 points in 2020, according to analysis by Sabato's Crystal Ball. Mahoning County Republican Party 1st Vice Chairman Tex Fischer does not think this trend will be reversed.

"A lot of people thought that that was maybe a fluke," he said, "but I always thought that a lot of the voters in this area were a lot more conservative than they realized."

A headshot of Michael Kripchak
Michael Kripchak
Courtesy of Michael Kripchak
Michael Kripchak is running for Congress in Ohio's 6th district.

Kripchak hears concerns about national issues on the campaign trail often, he said, like when talking to voter Mary Ellen Hawthorn in Massillon.

“OK, what’s your stand on abortion?," she asked in the doorway of her home.

"Pro-choice," Kripchak responded.

"That’s a must do," Hawthorn said.

Abortion is the single biggest issue Kripchak hears from voters, he said.

The single biggest issue Rulli hears about from voters is inflation, and he said he would support cuts to federal spending if elected.

“We have all these different departments. They all need a serious haircut," he said. "If I could help Congress get that budget and get every department on Capital Hill a 3 to 6% haircut – now I’m not saying disbanding these departments, but they have to start living within their means.”

With less than a week until the special election, both candidates are making a big push for support to get them over the finish line. Despite that, local election officials are expecting historically low voter turnout. That concerns both candidates.

“I mean the only thing we’re worried about is voter turnout. If we can turn out the vote, we should be OK," Rulli said. "I’m not taking it for granted. I’ve been in all 11 counties in the last couple weeks.”

The campaigning won’t be over after the special election on Tuesday. The candidates face off for a full term in Congress in November, regardless of who comes out on top in the current matchup.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.