'Joe The Plumber' Race A 'Microcosm' Of 2012 Politics

May 16, 2012
Originally published on May 16, 2012 6:47 am

In Ohio, a new congressional district that stretches along Lake Erie between Toledo and Cleveland has become a political portrait of polarized America.

The 9th District is one of the results of Ohio's loss of two representatives following the last census. The primary for the redrawn district pitted two longtime Democratic incumbents against each other. Now the victor, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, is taking on a Republican known for his role in the 2008 presidential election.

In his working-class Toledo neighborhood, Joe Wurzelbacher can point out the very spot where, four years ago, he stepped in front of a TV camera trained on presidential candidate Barack Obama, who was in town canvassing for votes.

He told Obama that he was getting ready to buy a company that made more than $250,000 a year. "Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?" he asked.

Candidate Obama proceeded to explain his tax plan, at one point saying that it was important to "spread the wealth around." That remark didn't play well for the Democrat, who was accused by GOP rival John McCain of being out of touch with the tax burden borne by working-class America — exemplified by "Joe the Plumber."

Four years later, Wurzelbacher has ridden his fame as "Joe the Plumber" into the role of GOP standard-bearer against Kaptur.

Dave Cohen of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics says the candidates offer voters a stark choice.

"Marcy Kaptur represents, really, the consummate insider politician. She's been a fairly moderate Democrat, very strong on defense. And Wurzelbacher, he represents, really, the Tea Party movement — anti-establishment — and is very much respected and somewhat beloved by social conservatives," Cohen says. "The 9th District race is really a nice microcosm of the battles and the culture wars that are going on in the country right now."

Raising Money

The battle for the 9th District also demonstrates the financial challenges of mounting a modern political campaign. Kaptur says raising money is tough.

"We now have to advertise in two media markets, Cleveland and Toledo, and Cleveland is five times more expensive than the western part of the state," she says. "So, it's quite a daunting task, and there's never enough."

While Wurzelbacher can't match Kaptur's accumulated war chest and national contacts, he's using his renown as "Joe the Plumber" to attract campaign dollars.

"We have an online presence that's pretty huge," he says. "Part of that, obviously, comes from my run-in with Barack Obama. So, we can reach pretty much all of the country and fundraise."

Outside Dollars

But reaching all over the country has meant that more than three-quarters of each candidate's funding has come from outside Ohio, according to an NPR analysis of Federal Election Commission reports this cycle.

"That might show you how bad the economy is around here and how tight it is," Wurzelbacher says. "People don't want to give money; it's very difficult for them."

Kaptur argues that most of her funders, even those with outside addresses, have roots in Ohio. Still, she's concerned about how much of her time is devoted to fundraising.

"It's turned into an endless campaign, where you're having to raise all these very egregious amounts of money just to be able to compete," she says. "When you have some campaigns where you're raising 20 and 30 times more than the job pays, it's out of bounds."

And when the majority of that money is coming from outside donors, instead of constituents, it's likely to change the nature of the race.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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We keep having to revise that old saying that everybody gets 15 minutes of fame. In the case of the man known as Joe the Plumber, his fame began with a videotaped conversation considerably shorter than that - just six minutes. He was confronting Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008.

Joe's fame has now extended into 2012. He is seeking a congressional seat in Ohio in a newly drawn, politically polarized district that stretches from Toledo to Cleveland. He's trying to unseat long time Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur. David C. Barnett, of member station WCPN, reports.

DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: Joe Wurzelbacher walks along the sidewalk of his working class Toledo neighborhood, looking for ground zero.

JOE WURZELBACHER: There you go, right here.

BARNETT: About four years ago, on this very spot, Wurzelbacher stepped in front of a TV camera trained on presidential candidate Barack Obama, who was in town canvassing for votes.

WURZELBACHER: My name's Joe Wurzelbacher.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good to see you Joe.

WURZELBACHER: I'm getting ready to buy a company that makes about $250,000, $270,000, $280,000 a year. Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?

OBAMA: Well, here's what's going to happen.

BARNETT: Candidate Obama proceeded to explain his tax plan, at one point saying that it was important to, quote, "spread the wealth around." That remark proved to be political poison for the Democrat, who was accused by GOP rival John McCain of being out of touch with the tax burden borne by working class America.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: And what you want to do to Joe the Plumber, and millions more like him, is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream.

BARNETT: Four years later, Wurzelbacher has ridden his fame as, so-called Joe the Plumber into being the GOP standard bearer in a Congressional race against longtime veteran Democrat, Marcy Kaptur. Dave Cohen of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, says the candidates offer voters a stark choice.

DAVE COHEN: Marcy Kaptur represents, really, the consummate insider politician. She's a fairly moderate Democrat, very strong on defense. And Wurzelbacher, you know, he represents, really, the Tea Party movement, anti-establishment, and is very much respected and somewhat beloved by social conservatives. The 9th district race is really a nice microcosm of the battles and the culture wars that are going on in the country, right now.

BARNETT: The battle for the 9th district also demonstrates the financial challenges of mounting a modern political campaign. Marcy Kaptur says raising money is tough.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE MARCY KAPTUR: We now have to advertise in two media markets, Cleveland and Toledo, and Cleveland is five times more expensive than the western part of the state. So, it's quite a daunting task, and there's never enough.

BARNETT: And while Wurzelbacher can't match Kaptur's accumulated war chest and national contacts, he's using his fame as Joe the Plumber to attract campaign dollars.

WURZELBACHER: We have an online presence that's pretty huge. You know, part of that, obviously, comes from my run-in with Barack Obama. So, we can reach pretty much all of the country and fundraise.

BARNETT: But, reaching all over the country has meant that more than three quarters of each candidate's funding has come from outside Ohio, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission reports of this cycle by NPR.

WURZELBACHER: That might show you how bad the economy is around here, and how tight it is. People don't want to give money. It's very difficult for them.

BARNETT: Marcy Kaptur argues that most of her funders, even those with outside addresses, have roots in Ohio. Still, she's concerned about how much of her time is devoted to fundraising.

KAPTUR: It's turned into a endless campaign, where you're having to raise all these very egregious amounts of money, just to be able to compete. You know, when you have some campaigns where you're raising 20 and 30 times more than the job pays, it's out of bounds.

BARNETT: And when the majority of that money is coming from outside donors, instead of constituents, it's likely to change the nature of the race.

For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.