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Jun 14, 2024, 11:55am EDT
politicsNorth America

Meet the Ohio Democrat who kept it competitive in hardcore Trump country

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The News

Ohio’s 6th Congressional District was a Democratic Party wasteland. It was built that way. The Ohio River Valley, Democratic for decades, rushed to the right under Barack Obama. In 2020, Donald Trump won the region by a 2-1 margin, and in 2021, Ohio Republicans redrew the congressional map to create a safe seat for Rep. Bill Johnson, one that Trump won by 29 points.

But after Johnson retired, Republicans under-performed in the June 11 election to replace him. Republican state legislator Michael Rulli ran 20 points behind Trump — enough to win, but a rare case of Democrats over-performing in a district without many of the white college graduates who’ve helped them win special elections. Michael Kripchak, the Democratic veteran who lost the race, told Semafor that Rulli barely campaigned, never debated him, and gave him space to try something new — an aggressive, populist campaign on a budget of under $20,000. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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Q&A

Americana: Tell me about your decision to get into the race in the first place. This is a race that Democrats looked at and said, “This is unwinnable.”

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Michael Kripchak: Yeah, they absolutely said that. Look, for me, it came out of a call to duty. As a former Air Force officer, when I saw what happened on January 6, that’s why I decided to get in. I didn’t look at how possible it was to win this. Having spent six months interacting with voters in the district, I think it’s absolutely winnable.

Americana: What interactions did you have with national Democrats, with the committees?

Michael Kripchak: In all honesty, there was next to no interaction. We obviously tried to reach out and get support for this race. But next to none of it came. This is why middle America feels that the Democratic Party has abandoned them. Look at it from the perspective of Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton in those primaries back in 2016. Bernie had the strategy of saying, let’s reach all Americans. Hillary Clinton’s camp went in the opposite direction. We’re seeing the result of that.

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Americana: You grew up here, so what’s your theory of why voters ran away from the Democrats?

Michael Kripchak: It’s the effects of globalization. Late stage capitalism is all about globalization. Adam Smith calculated this out 250 years ago. We transformed the economy, but we didn’t transform our workforce. People lost jobs that they took pride and dignity in. We were the ones producing the steel. Now we have one party that has terrible answers to this situation — we need to retract, we need to pull in, we need to decrease our influence around the world. And we have another party that doesn’t talk to the people about the real issues that they’re facing.

It’d be great if there was this national push against the rising authoritarianism coming from the right. But I gotta admit, the only inroads I made were because of the work I did putting 11,000 miles on my car, running down three pairs of shoes, traveling the district.

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Americana: And what drew people to the Republican Party? How satisfied were they with how it was running things in Ohio?

Michael Kripchak: Their news sources lambaste Democrats and blame them for every single problem under the sun. Their news sources don’t say: Look at all this corruption that’s happening down in Columbus under the Republicans. If they’re never hearing that, and all they’re hearing about is how evil Hunter Biden is, and how the Democrats are destroying everything , what do you think will happen? I went on one of the right-wing radio shows in Youngstown, and I thought we had a good conversation, but as soon as we go off air the host tells me I’m a big government Democrat who just wants to spend money. I just said the opposite!

Look, freedom of speech is important. But when people don’t engage with actual reality and actual data, and they’re just reading things that affirm their feelings, and when they’ve been under the influence for 40 years now of right-wing propaganda networks, none of what Democrats say cuts through. There’s no way I could undo 40 years of programming in a few months. But we made progress.

Americana: What was the view of Joe Biden’s record?

Michael Kripchak: I’m just gonna be straight up with you. Heck, even when I talked to striking workers, some of them were like: Trump all day. I’m gonna vote against you. I’d say, “But they hate unions! None of these construction projects, bridges being replaced, the Intel plant down here in southern Ohio — none of this would be happening without the Democrats.” They’d say, “Well, their inflation is out of control.” Even after I’d say that 52% of inflation is due to increased corporate profits. I don’t blame the people. I blame their leaders. Their leaders have trained them to get emotional and respond in these ways, so logic does not matter anymore. That’s why my message has been about getting them their dignity back, making sure they get money in their pockets, rebuilding an industry that’s been the powerhouse for America.

Americana: What advice do you have for Sherrod Brown, who won this region in 2006, won part of it in 2012, and hasn’t won it since?

Michael Kripchak: So, he gave me his support, but that’s not a full throated endorsement. Considering I only lost by 5000 votes, I just keep thinking what difference it could have made, right? What might have come down from the Democratic Party that could have made a difference? But I met him a few months back, and my honest reaction was, wow, this guy actually cares. I would say to him, keep getting out there, meet the voters, and make sure they understand that he’s one of the good ones that actually does care about pushing the things that will help them most. But first and foremost, endorse me. Get out there on the campaign trail with me.

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