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Jobs, Conservative Roots Pose Hurdles for Democrats in Small Town America

Ohio’s 16th District all begins with Canton. The former manufacturing hub in the northeasternpart of the state has simultaneously shrunk in population and yet grown in the ranks of Ohio cities – climbing to the state’s seventh largest. Other cities have simply lost more population.

And at about 78,000 people, it is by far the biggest city in the 16th. Drive west out of Canton and the district quickly becomes a string of small burgs largely strung along U.S. 30. There is Massillon at about 30,000 and Wooster at about 26,000 and Ashland at about 20,000. All with their own downtowns.

This is not suburban sprawl, it is Small Town America in Patchwork Nation’s congressional district breakdowns – places with their own histories and identities. But undergirding it all in the 16th is the loss of manufacturing.

There is a tendency to think Small Town America as filled with farmers and pickup trucks, but many are like this piece of Ohio, a collection of towns with many older residents and a lot of service jobs and small manufacturing. There are also a strong conservative values.

The 16th’s congressional seat is held by Democrat John Boccieri, who won it in 2008, but it was in Republican hands before him – for a long time. In fact, for more than 50 years.

How Did we Get Here?

A quick glance at the 16th is sure to bring confusion – exactly how did Boccieri capture this seat? There are two quick answers.

First, then-incumbent Ralph Regula retired in 2009, making the seat open. Second, manufacturing does sometimes mean conservative, Catholic blue-collar voters, but it also means unions.

The NewsHour’s Quinn Bowman and I spent some time talking to seniors who were bowling last Friday and were surprised at how many Democratic votes we found among the older residents who once worked the area’s manufacturing jobs. One senior told us he didn’t care about freezes in Social Security — he has a pension to pay his bills.

Lee Nussbaum, a retired Teamster, told us how grateful he was that President Obama had stopped the NAFTA Superhighway from becoming a reality. The superhighway is a bit of folklore that surrounds the idea of a massive road “four football fields wide” that would carry goods from Mexico to Canada — and without Teamster drivers.

Add a large block of voters with those kinds of concerns to an angry 2008 electorate, then add a moderate Democratic candidate and you have a recipe for the 16th as it currently exists.

The question is for how much longer. Boccieri might have run as a moderate, but he voted for the health care reform bill, the stimulus and the energy bills – and those votes aren’t popular in this small-town district.

A Pelosi Clone?

The attack on Boccieri from his opponent Jim Renacci, a former mayor of one of the district’s small towns, Wadsworth, centers on one number: 94 percent. That, Renacci says, is the amount of time Boccieri votes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Renacci repeated that exact number to us in an interview at a Friday night football game.

Non-partisan analysts have raised questions about the statistic, but the attack line persists. That’s in large part because Renacci and the GOP estimate that Ohio’s 16th is the kind of place where a liberal congresswoman from San Francisco is none too popular.

They’re probably right. Boccieri won the seat by running as a moderate, pro-life Democrat. And that was in 2008, a big year for Democrats, and President Obama still lost this district. In other words the deep cultural conservatism here carries more than a little weight.

And what of the economy — the issue of 2010? There are no easy fixes for districts like the 16th. There are no ways to quickly turn around 30 years of job losses.

In his interview, Renacci focused on cutting taxes and releasing the “entrepreneurial spirit” in the area. But whoever wins the House seat is not likely going to be able to turn things around suddenly, and people in the 16th largely accept that.

The challenges for Boccieri in the 16th — and for Democrats in Small Town American districts in general — are simple: a deep vein of conservatism on top of a hammered economy. That is a tough set of issues to run against.