TOLEDO, Ohio — Early on Labor Day, the longest-serving woman in U.S. House of Representatives history was riding under a cloudy sky in the back of a vintage, cherry-red Chevrolet Impala.
Marcy Kaptur was at the front of Toledo’s very labor-centric parade — a procession of autoworkers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, mechanics and teachers — smiling and waving from the glossy convertible crawling along the planned route.
There are few members of Congress whose constituents could pick them out of a lineup, and Kaptur happens to be one of them — a fact that might seem improbable given that the 76-year-old is the antithesis of the type of grandstanding lawmaker who is a household name.
Outside of northwest Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, Kaptur is probably best known for the longevity of her political career and for spearheading the legislation that created the World War II Memorial in Washington. But here in her hometown, at a pro-labor event with a not-so-subtle Democratic message, Kaptur is basically royalty.
“Whenever I see Marcy, she’s always welcoming to the people,” said Rachelle Roy, a 51-year-old letter carrier who ran up to Kaptur’s vehicle during the parade for a selfie.
That Kaptur was here on this day — at the head of the procession, in a city where organized labor wields significant political power — was no accident. The veteran Democrat has never faced a reelection challenge quite like the one she’s up against in November.
After losing a seat in congressional reapportionment, Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly drew Kaptur a new Republican-leaning seat anchored in one of the state’s traditionally blue counties, a move that she and other Democrats blasted as unjust and illegal — and one that might end her nearly 40-year career.
“It’s an unconstitutional district,” Kaptur told HuffPost, citing the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling that the new map fails to meet constitutional guidelines. “The courts have declared that, and yet the Ohio Legislature has chosen not to do anything. They’re a criminal class.”
No longer competing for a long-shot seat, Republicans nominated J.R. Majewski, a project manager in nuclear security who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Majewski, known for turning a 19,000-square-foot section of his lawn into a banner supporting then-President Donald Trump, is running to win — and Democrats acknowledge that the contest for the Toledo-based seat will be closer than in recent decades. The race is a top target for House Republicans’ campaign arm in a year when the GOP is hoping to flip control of the lower chamber.
But Majewski, 42, has struggled to downplay his ties to conspiracy theorists and Jan. 6 after appearing at the Capitol with a livestreamer known for promoting the QAnon movement and saying it is “plausible” that a former top aide to Democrat Hillary Clinton might be a pedophile, The New York Times reported.
Kaptur’s ads accuse Majewski of breaching barricades to enter the Capitol, which he denies, along with any connection to QAnon. Neither Majewski nor his campaign responded to requests for an interview.
The National Republican Congressional Committee did not mention Majewski by name in a statement to HuffPost on the race.
“Career politician Marcy Kaptur has a 40-year record of failure for Ohioans, and her decision to be a rubber stamp for the Biden/Pelosi agenda that saddled Ohio voters with record-high costs has left her vulnerable,” said NRCC spokeswoman Courtney Parella, referring to President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
This is the 2022 midterms in a nutshell: Kaptur, a veteran lawmaker with plum appointments to influential House committees, facing a very real challenge from Trump Lawn Guy, who is also a MAGA rapper.
“My opponent was one of the ones who took busloads to the Capitol on Jan. 6, so you’re not dealing with someone who, from what I can tell, has ever done anything for the region,” said Kaptur, who highlighted her own seniority — she assumed the “longest-serving woman” title from the late Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers in 2018 — as well as attention to important local issues like cleaning up Lake Erie.
“I don’t really know him. No one seems to know him or much about him. I don’t know how long he’s lived here. So it’s peculiar. It’s a peculiar race,” said Kaptur, whose previous GOP opponents include Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, also known as Joe the Plumber, and a former state representative who lost his seat following a felony theft conviction.
Kaptur spent Labor Day, which marks the beginning of the election season’s homestretch, at popular campaigning haunts: the parade in downtown Toledo, followed by union picnics where Kaptur, an enthusiastic small-talker, was sometimes gently redirected by her campaign manager during an extended conversation.
“She’s for the little guy. She’s doesn’t have any airs about her. She’s just a regular person,” said Ellen Morris, a retired electrician who spoke with Kaptur at a picnic for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Majewski supporters characterize Kaptur as a congressional backbencher and lockstep Democrat who’s gotten too comfortable in office.
“She’s like a Pelosi,” Carrie Turi, a Republican voter from Fulton County, located just west of Toledo and one of the reddest parts of Kaptur’s new district, told HuffPost. In a press release announcing his endorsement of Majewski, Trump called Kaptur “not at all a respected Member” of Congress, adding that she is “fully controlled by Nancy Pelosi and the Radical Left. She wants to stay there [in office] forever and do nothing.”
“I like the fact that Trump endorsed him, and I like the fact that he’s a veteran,” said John Pietrowski, a 63-year-old retiree from Toledo. Majewski’s biography references his time in the Air Force.
“He’s finally somebody who’s willing to stand up against Marcy Kaptur and campaign against her physically, which we haven’t had in the district in years,” Pietrowski said.
The last significant electoral hurdle that Kaptur faced wasn’t against a Republican. After congressional redistricting a decade ago, she was gerrymandered into a seat that pitted her against another incumbent Democrat, Cleveland’s Dennis Kucinich. Kaptur fended off the challenge and was left to represent a scraggly district that extends from Toledo to Cleveland along Lake Erie.
Since then, Ohio voters have passed measures to address extreme gerrymandering, outlawing another “Snake on the Lake.” But Republicans still managed to pack Democrats into only two guaranteed districts for at least one more election.
Kaptur’s campaign is using its cash advantage to highlight Majewski’s presence at the Capitol and paint him as an enemy of law enforcement, pouncing on comments he made calling the Capitol Police “very irresponsible” in the wake of Jan. 6 and encouraging red states to secede from the U.S. following the 2020 election, the Toledo Blade reported.
Majewski’s campaign argues that Kaptur is creating a “false narrative” to brand him an extremist — despite Majewski releasing a campaign video that features him brandishing an assault-style rifle in an abandoned factory, bashing in a door and promising to do “whatever it takes to restore this country to its former glory.”
Majewski says he doesn’t regret bringing Trump supporters to Washington to protest Biden winning the 2020 election.
“I took veterans and people that couldn’t afford to go to Washington, D.C., there to support the president,” Majewski told Spectrum News this month, adding that he cried the day of the attack. “I hated what happened. And it’s a total injustice to keep having to answer questions about why I was there.”
Kaptur, meanwhile, has distanced herself from Biden, who is struggling to boost his approval rating before the midterms. In a TV ad last month, She criticized the president for “letting Ohio solar manufacturers be undercut by China” and stressed her independence from Biden. “[Kaptur] doesn’t work for Joe Biden; she works for you,” the ad declared.
Republicans responded by noting that Kaptur was photographed with Biden in July and has praised his work on the Great Recession-era auto industry rescue.
Kaptur avoided directly criticizing Biden in her interview with HuffPost.
“I have departed from Democratic presidents in the past,” she said, citing her vote against the Bill Clinton-era North American Free Trade Agreement, which economists say contributed to the decimation of manufacturing in places like Toledo. “I’m in the legislative branch. I don’t work for the executive branch.”
Dressed in a light pink button-down blouse, knee-length black skirt and ballet flats, Kaptur accessorized on Labor Day with two badges that belonged to her late parents, both union factory workers and first-generation Polish immigrants. Kaptur still lives in the modest 700-square-foot family home she grew up in. She last wore the badges in public in 2020 to introduce Biden at a union hall for autoworkers who make General Motors powertrains.
Like other swing-state Democrats, Kaptur was skeptical about Biden’s executive order forgiving up to $20,000 in student loan debt for certain borrowers, chalking it up to people on the president’s “political side” calling the shots shortly before an election.
“I think there is a way to handle it, but his decision was just” — Kaptur paused and frowned — “sloppy.”
“It didn’t do anything to create more rigor in our universities and the finance offices that just give young people a credit card, and there’s no monitoring of anything,” she continued. “I don’t think it creates the kind of behavior at universities that you want, which is responsible behavior to help our students to go to school in a way that they don’t get in such deep debt. I don’t think it was well thought through.”
Democrats seem to understand the political calculations that Kaptur is making in a tough election.
“That’s her choice. I’m not sure I would have done it, but she’s a pretty wise woman. She’s got to run to win in a district that’s not fair,” said Pete Gerken, a local Democratic official, on Kaptur’s decision to go negative on Biden.
“There are two races in Ohio that the country is going to look at, and one of them is Marcy’s. The [longest-serving] woman in Congress gets defeated by a machine-gun-toting secessionist — that’s going to ripple through the nation.”
The other race is the one at the top of the ticket: the contest between Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. Vance to replace Rob Portman in the Senate. Similar to Majewski’s primary, which featured two popular state legislators who may have posed a greater threat to Kaptur, Trump’s endorsement in a crowded GOP Senate primary elevated a weak general election candidate, making the job harder for Republicans in a state where it should be getting easier.
After voting twice for Barack Obama, Ohio swung strongly to the right for Trump, with exceptions for some Democratic judges and Sen. Sherrod Brown.
It was drizzling by the time Kaptur arrived at the picnic for millwrights and pile driver operators, her last scheduled stop of the day, where Frank LaRose, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, had just plopped seat-first into a carnival dunk tank.
After about 20 minutes, Kaptur’s campaign manager tried to steer her away from a conversation with a health care worker about COVID-19, but she resisted.
“This is interesting,” Kaptur said to the woman, a respiratory therapist who worked at a Michigan hospital early in the pandemic and described lacking critical pieces of equipment for ventilators. “Helping people who have come down with COVID. This is what members absorb, you know?