OHIO — The donnybrook in northeast Ohio between two Congressional incumbents grappling to keep their jobs has become a leading electoral battleground and one of the most expensive House races in the nation.
The contest is between Democrat Betty Sutton and Republican Jim Renacci, who were pitted against each other after redistricting. But there are many other players involved, too. An Oct. 2 Politico article pegged spending by outside groups and national party committees at $4.2 million. A week later, when The Plain Dealer’s Sabrina Eaton took a look at the money in the race—in a post that smartly linked directly to the Sunlight Foundation’s excellent Follow the Unlimited Money page—that figure had risen to $4.4 million. And that was not counting a $1.4 million ad buy announced that day on Renacci’s behalf, or a separate buy of more than $400,000 supporting Sutton. (Sutton’s support comes primarily from public- and private-sector unions, while Renacci’s major backing comes from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to House Speaker John Boehner, and the National Republican Congressional Committee. The vast majority of the outside money has gone to negative ads.)
It’s a situation that could be a poster child for a concern The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein raised back in April, and that CJR cited at the time—which is that outside cash could have its greatest influence in House races, where voters tend to have less information about the candidates. In Ohio’s 16th, both sides actually have ample cash coming in to help spread their message. (Sutton has an edge in the money race to date, while the new district’s lines slightly favor Renacci.) But voters need independent news coverage, not just a dueling ad war.
Fortunately, the district spans the territory of three local newspapers: The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, the Akron Beacon Journal, and The Repository of Canton. A review of coverage from these three outlets shows they have, to varying extents, offered close surveillance of the role of money, the rhetorical sparring, and the substantive differences on display in the campaign. But there is also room for additional substance and enterprise in the reporting.
One coverage opportunity occurred on Wednesday, when Sutton and Renacci met at the City Club of Cleveland for the only debate of the campaign. (The venue was actually outside the boundaries of the new district.) But readers of The Repository didn’t learn much from the event. In an email, City Editor David Sereno wrote Thursday that the paper “did not cover the debate.”
Asked to explain why, Sereno added: “No one reason. Covering a similar event days earlier, distance, and having Robert [Wang] focus on another story about how the presidential candidates haven’t yet stumped in our county, which was an A1 hit.” Sereno added that the paper might run The Plain Dealer’s debate story in Friday’s edition, though a search for debate coverage on the paper’s site Friday morning didn’t turn up anything.
The paper’s thinking is understandable. The 16th district includes only some areas in the northwest and a slim finger of territory projecting into Stark County, where Canton is the county seat; the paper also has two other House races in its area. The “similar event” Sereno referred to was an Oct. 6 voter symposium in nearby Akron, organized by a nonprofit group that strives to promote civil, substantive political discussion. Reporter Robert Wang wrote a clear, easy-to-read story about the event with bullet points that highlighted each candidates’ position on various issues, though it would have been better not to relegate a good bit of analysis on how Sutton and Renacci dodged various questions to the bottom of the article. Wang and The Repository also followed up several days later with a look at how participants in the symposium viewed the candidates. (Renacci had the edge across the board.)
A few weeks earlier, meanwhile, The Repository ran in-depth profiles of both Renacci and Sutton. Both stories were long and detailed, if a bit difficult to wade through at times, especially the Renacci piece.
So The Repository has hardly neglected the Sutton-Renacci campaign, and the race does have to share space with other political stories on the paper’s agenda. Still, it was surprising, and a little disappointing, to see the paper skip the debate.
The strongest debate coverage came from the area’s biggest paper, The Plain Dealer.
Reporter Henry J. Gomez dryly noted in his lede that Renacci’s closing statement—“This race is about two polar opposites”—was at least one comment that reflected truth.