Independents (160,000) outnumber Democrats (109,000) and Republicans (140,000) in the district. Harbaugh’s challenge is getting enough of those independents. Volunteers have knocked on 40,000 doors so far. The campaign runs door-knocking training sessions, basically just urging volunteers to listen to what voters have to say. Most voters are amazed somebody is asking them what they think.
Republican Bob Gibbs, seeking his fifth term, was president of the Ohio Farm Bureau before he went into politics and has never faced serious opposition. In 2016, he won reelection easily, outspending his Democratic challenger 100 to 1. In 2014, Democrats didn’t even field a candidate.
This cycle is different. Harbaugh is getting sizeable crowds at the town hall meetings he holds—more than a hundred since he announced. “They’re desperate for somebody to show up,” he says.
Gibbs has held only one such open event since he was reelected in 2016. He favors tele-town halls where he sits in front of a monitor taking questions that are likely pre-screened. Supported by agricultural interests with a stake in the district and beyond, Gibbs serves on the House Agriculture Committee and is a reliable vote for his corporate backers on key legislation like the farm bill, which sets new standards and price supports every five years.
Gibbs has so far refused to debate Harbaugh, which has provoked grassroots protests.
A graduate of Duke University and Yale Law School, Harbaugh is following the Conor Lamb playbook, reflecting his district in respecting gun rights and distancing himself from Washington Democrats by pledging not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker should the Democrats win the majority in the House.
“It’s not personal,” says Harbaugh. “I think about what leadership meant to me in the Navy, and it meant accountability. If the ship runs aground, you hold the captain accountable whether it happens on the bridge or in the engine room.”
Harbaugh, who is 44, was the first in an initial group of 19 veterans endorsed by Moulton. Conor Lamb was the first in the group to put a win on the board when he pulled off an upset victory in a special election in March in a Pennsylvania district that Trump had carried by 20 points. Lamb called Harbaugh afterwards telling him, “The torch is yours. Go win in Ohio.”
The two districts are nearly identical, says Harbaugh, who like Lamb is not running against Trump. He’s running against a Republican incumbent who’s been mostly absent in the district, and a GOP Congress that nobody likes. He thinks voters can differentiate between their support for Trump and their disdain for a GOP-controlled Congress. “There’s no love lost for this Republican Congress, and voters can hold both thoughts,” he says.