LIMA, Ohio — Within five minutes of meeting Janet Garrett’s campaign team for the first time, I’m asked to help with their speaker set-up. The laptop audio playing the Spotify playlist is coming out of the projector, and they don’t know how to hook it up to the main speaker, where it would be louder. I’m happy to try and do it, eager to prove my tech savvy to my hosts, but fail miserably and give up after spending a couple of minutes on my knees on the hardwood floor, testing a few different cords in vain until Garrett’s campaign manager eventually gets it to work.
At first glance, the Garrett campaign delivers all the straight-out-of-the-movies clichés expected of an underdog candidate trying her luck—in this case for the third time—against a well-heeled opponent, six-term incumbent Congressman Jim Jordan. She’s a former teacher of special needs and kindergarten kids who’s worked in an orphanage and served in the Peace Corps, and her days are filled with greeting voters in diners, trips to high school auditoriums, and low-key but lovingly catered Democratic Party dinners. There are kids in Halloween costumes, and Chamber of Commerce businessmen, and politically engaged senior citizens to meet. There’s even an improbable person running the operation—23-year-old campaign manager Zach Stepp, just a few months removed from his graduation at the University of Chicago. I’m 23, and I absolutely hate when people underestimate my abilities because of my age, and even I raise an eyebrow when I realize he’s not Garrett’s son.
As for the villain of this story, Jordan’s extensive history as a leader of the Republican’s Party’s Freedom Caucus tells it all. He’s a man whose ambitions include keeping non-violent drug offenders in jail, demonizing immigrants, limiting queer rights, and letting the environment get destroyed. Then there are the odds—FiveThirtyEight gives Garrett about a 4 percent chance of winning in 2018. If this were happening almost anywhere else in the country, this might just be another cute story, the kind political writers crank out with ease before elections, about a lonely liberal determined to bring about change despite a low budget and long odds.
But here in Ohio’s 4th district, Garrett’s long-shot campaign rolls on as investigators and lawsuits continue to push for answers about what happened at the state’s biggest and most prominent public university: More than 100 former Ohio State athletes and students have said that Dr. Richard Strauss committed sexual misconduct against them between 1979 and 1997. Those coming forward include wrestlers who competed for the university while Jordan was an assistant coach with the team. Some of Jordan’s former athletes say that he was aware of Strauss’s abuse—either because they told him directly or because it was simply impossible not to know—and did nothing. Others have stood by Jordan, saying they believe he had no idea.
But the case against Strauss hasn’t drawn much national notice. Even locally, neither candidate seems especially eager to talk about it in depth. Jordan’s statements that he didn’t know anything seem to be enough to keep voters happy.
“I’m supposed to prove I didn’t know about something from 30 years ago about a doctor who’s been dead for 14 years. It’s ridiculous and everyone sees through it,” Jordan said during a debate on Oct. 23 against Garrett at Monroeville High School.
The audience, mostly high-school students, applauded.
That moment represents just one of many reasons why the odds and the votes are, once again, heavily stacked against Garrett—as they would be for anyone here running under the banner of the Democrats. Garrett is battling against a comfortable long-term incumbent in one of Ohio’s most conservative districts, and she doesn’t have any but the slightest of the chances to come away victorious on Election Day. Like any community, the 4th district isn’t a monolith. Some people here do want change. But will there ever be a chance to make the 4th district less of a lost cause for Democrats?
“If I knew the answer to that, I would be a very wealthy person,” laughs Michael Parkin as I sit across from him in his office. Parkin is a politics professor at Oberlin College, which is currently stuck with Jordan as its congressional representative despite being one of the most stereotypically progressive places in the country. To change a district that is solidly controlled by one party, he says, is “not impossible, but nearly impossible.”
“Even if everything were to fall into [a challenger’s] favor, we still have voters, particularly in a congressional election, who don’t pay much attention to what’s going on,” he said. “They’ve picked their team years, if not decades, ago, and you have to give them an incredibly compelling reason to switch their teams.”
The 4th district has supported their team, the GOP, for quite some time. Going back to World War II, this area has been represented by just five different people—all of them white Republican men who have peacefully transferred power with hardly any competitive general elections.
“How do you get a Packers fan to support the New York Giants?” Parkin asks. “It’s just never ever going to happen.”
Tough as they might be to find, I flew west to the 4th Congressional district to see if there could be any answers. I was extremely amped to be in Ohio, just a couple hours south of my Michigan homeland. Lima, the largest city in the 4th district, has buildings that are actually taller than three stories, so I can’t nostalgically claim it reminds me of my hometown. But the so-delicious-and-cheap-you’ll-hate-yourself local hamburger spot (Kewpee) and the massive comic book store nearby helps make this part of the state feel like my natural habitat.
The district stretches wide through countless small cities and towns across west-central Ohio, then snakes its way up to Lake Erie—people say it looks like a duck. For a challenger’s campaign, its five different media markets (Toledo, Dayton, Lima, Cleveland, and Columbus) make it especially expensive to buy ad time. For a reporter, it means a lot of hours spent on two-lane highways, which are heaven to drive on a crisp colorful fall day. I’ve been committed to Brooklyn for the past year and a half, but it always will be truly joyful to do 80 miles per hour on these roads with no other vehicles in sight, wide open fields flanking my car, and Miranda Lambert blasting through the speakers.
But as I drove up Route 117 to get to Lima—“Margaritaville” was literally playing on the radio—I saw a Confederate flag hanging prominently outside a house, one of a few that I would see while I was in the district. It’s a self-evidently idiotic piece of cloth to put up in this state, considering the Confederate army killed more than 10,000 Ohioans in their fight to maintain slavery. But the fact that it can be proudly displayed with no fear of social consequences makes the flag an unambiguously dark reminder of the barely hidden notes of white supremacy that pervade this district—whose creation, not unlike much of present-day America, was initially made possible by the removal of the Shawnee tribe from what would become Allen County in 1831. (One of the high schools I visited, Wapakoneta, calls itself “Home of the Redskins.”)
I’m white, and so is 90 percent of the district—and surely its voting population is even whiter, because the 4th district contains more than 12,000 prison inmates, who are disproportionately black and Latino and aren’t allowed to vote due to felony convictions but nevertheless get counted as part of the population equality requirement for each Ohio district. My skin color doesn’t inhibit anything I do here. But as a transfemme kid who arrived just a day after the New York Times published an article detailing the Trump administration’s planned war on trans people, I can’t help but feel both uneasy and unwelcome when I think too hard about where I am. That anxiety is reaffirmed when Jordan earns perhaps the loudest cheers of the debate for saying “I believe guys are guys and girls are girls” in response to a question about LGBT rights.
Elections are a referendum on who matters and who doesn’t, and the 4th district has continually reiterated through its choice of representative that gay people, women in need of health care, future generations, and Americans on welfare, to name just a few, don’t matter to them. It’s enough to make my bright-eyed worship of wide-open roads and country music feel just a bit more menacing.
But the all-out embrace of conservatism has worked perfectly in Jordan’s decade-plus in Congress, propelling him to easy victories at the polls every two years. In each of the previous elections against Garrett, Jordan has received two-thirds of the vote. The man is barely even campaigning this time around, showing up for a few debates but otherwise keeping mostly quiet in Ohio while he campaigns elsewhere for his quest to become Speaker of the House. His campaign website is absurdly out of date, and his Twitter reveals no mention of any upcoming election. Deadspin reached out to Jordan’s chief of staff for comment, and never heard back.
When Jordan has publicly campaigned, he’s shown a tendency to lump Garrett in with the Republican perception of the far left—Colin Kaepernick and Maxine Waters were both name checked in his Monroeville debate opening statement (and Waters three more times later on). That same day, Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle rallied the Republican Party in Allen County, with Guilfoyle calling the Democrats “the party of obstruction and hate and vitriol.”
The reality is, Garrett is a moderate who only comes off as a strong liberal because it’s pretty damn hard to match Jordan’s conservatism on any issue. She supports investment in renewable energy, Medicare for all, higher taxes on the wealthy, strong unions, and queer rights. But also she’s a gun owner, she does not favor abolishing ICE, and she supports a state-by-state approach to legalizing marijuana. When she makes the case for Democrats winning control over the House, she frames it in terms of simply restoring balance and oversight to a Republican-dominated government.
That hasn’t stopped Jordan from positioning this race as a choice between “two dramatically different visions for the nation,” with the left representing “the most radical positions in American history.” Jordan appears to have decided that the best way to win against Garrett is to make her seem like someone she’s not.
One true fact about both Jordan and Garrett, however, is that neither wants to talk about Ohio State. For Jordan, who maintains that he would have stood up for his athletes if he had known about the abuse, it’s very obvious why. Garrett has opened up about being a survivor of intense physical abuse from her ex-husband, and called Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court “a huge step backward.” But in response to a question about the boundaries of “locker-room talk” at the debate, she avoided any direct mention of Ohio State or Strauss, despite noting that abuse happens to men as well as women.
“I am a survivor of domestic abuse myself,” she said. “My opponent has demonstrated that he does not take these things seriously, and that’s why we need a change of leadership in Congress.”
But that lack of specificity or willingness to really hammer Jordan on his role in the scandal means that the incumbent can win re-election without answering tough questions. Garrett admitted to me that her campaign has purposefully stayed away from directly addressing the allegations against Jordan, opting instead to let the investigation run its course, but she did note that she sees it mentioned all the time on Twitter. She adds that the ongoing investigation gains more relevance, too, in light of Jordan’s strong defense of Kavanaugh.
“He came right out and said Kavanaugh was innocent,” Garrett said. “And I said, ‘How in the world do you know? You weren’t there.’ Just because he’s a man, just because he’s a member of your party, doesn’t mean that you know the facts in the case. And to me it suggests that, ‘If you’re on my team, I will shield you from any horrible thing that you might do,’ and that is just a horrifying thought for any person in government.”
With the independent law firm’s investigation of Ohio State still ongoing, however, there will be precious little solid information about Jordan’s past available to voters before they make the decision to re-elect him or not. His name also doesn’t come up in any of the civil suits filed, so far, against Ohio State.
“What I think voters are still struggling with statewide,” said Mike DiSabato, one of the OSU wrestlers who said Jordan knew about Strauss’s abuse, “is providing more information on actually, ‘What did Jim Jordan know? When did he know it? And why is he so hellbent on denying what he saw every day?’”
It is dangerous and wrongheaded to force victims of abuse to possess spotless records and be able to perfectly articulate their thoughts in order to be believed. But those standards are still expected, and failures to meet them already have been used to attack two of the wrestlers who have been the most vocal about what they say Jordan knew.
While DiSabato made salient points over our 40-minute phone conversation—particularly about the NCAA’s exploitation of so-called amateur athletes—my faith in him grew shakier the more we talked, as his passionate sentences became more and more stream-of-consciousness, until eventually he began speculating that Jordan has so strongly denied knowing about the voyeurism at Ohio State because he’s a closeted bisexual. Notably for those looking to discredit his judgement, DiSabato emailed Jeff Jordan’s business partner, Nancy Schultz, a picture of her husband’s murderer earlier this year.
Dunyasha Yetts, who said that he specifically told Jordan about the abuse and the coach did nothing, didn’t respond to requests for an interview. Jordan supporters have pounced on the fact that Yetts served 18 months in prison for fraud a decade ago.
And then there are the men who don’t want to talk about it within a political context. Shawn Dailey, who has called Jordan “a close friend” but also said that his former coach knew about Strauss’s abuse, declined to be interviewed, writing, “Jim Jordan is a small tangent in our story, and not one that we are focusing on.”
Stepp, the young campaign manager, told me that a couple of wrestlers have reached out to the campaign about coming to debates, but they responded by asking them “not to make a scene.” The subtext is clear: None of these men will sway an undecided voter, let alone a committed Republican.
Even if the scandal were more visible, Parkin, the Oberlin professor, doesn’t believe it would be enough for voters to lose confidence in Jordan, because any attack from that angle will simply be viewed as partisan.
“It would be a very dramatically uphill climb in this district to convince Jordan supporters that he did something wrong, or he’s somebody that they don’t think that he is,” he said. “It’s hard to separate what is an honest statement about somebody else’s behavior from what you think their partisan motivations would be.”
Beyond the facts of the scandal, it would be political suicide for Garrett to position herself as an “anti-Ohio State” candidate. Support for OSU athletics might well be the single most unifying force across all of Ohio, and Jordan, despite actually competing for and graduating from Wisconsin, has his connection with the Buckeyes locked down. Aside from his time as an assistant coach for the wrestling team and his postgrad degrees, two of Jordan’s nephews—Bo and Micah—have been recent All-American wrestlers at Ohio State, while a third, Rocky, is just starting his college career there. While competing for OSU, Bo and Micah have also worn logos for the wrestling company owned by their father and Jim’s brother, Jeff Jordan—who oversaw a wrestling dynasty at Graham High School and runs private wrestling camps that draw talented wrestlers from across the country to rural Ohio. Jeff Jordan retired from high school coaching just a few months ago.
“In the wrestling community, the Jordan name is still pretty much mint condition,” said Bob Preusse, whose been covering wrestling in that part of Ohio for decades.
For an underdog candidate like Garrett, blatantly battling against one of the largest universities in the country would unnecessarily increase the degree of difficulty. Given her current standing in the polls—not to mention the fact that the Republicans who currently represent her electorate have proven already that they will ignore even an unimpeachable survivor—there is a perverse logic to Garrett minimizing the scandal during her campaign. If elected, that understanding goes completely out the window, and she absolutely needs to help hold Ohio State accountable for the abuse it allowed. But for now, it needs to be a footnote for her to have any chance of winning that position of power.
“I think any political candidate who comes out and says anything disparaging about Ohio State University in Ohio,” Parkin said, “probably has zero percent chance of winning.”
Even if the wrestling scandal doesn’t change the hearts and minds of Ohio voters—and it does appear to be a lost cause as a key issue in the 2018 campaign—there is so much else at stake in this election. If Jordan’s alleged enabling of Strauss won’t get people on Garrett’s side, there are a host of other issues that, in a good world, should.
Our planet is dying. We are rapidly approaching a point of no return on climate change, and Jim Jordan won’t do a thing to stop it. Trans people are in danger of being defined out of existence by the government, putting an already vulnerable group even more at risk, and Jordan is encouraging more bigotry. Central Americans are fleeing horrors in their home countries to try and find hope of a better life in the United States, and Jordan wants to spend massive amounts of public money to stop them. People in Ohio are going to jail for minor, non-violent drug possession crimes, and Jim Jordan wants to uphold that status quo by defeating Issue 1, an Ohio ballot initiative which would turn some possession crimes into misdemeanors. A man credibly accused of sexual assault was just confirmed to the Supreme Court, and Jim Jordan is proud of it. People like him are the majority right now in the federal government. It sucks! But all of these problems—even freaking climate change—could be avoided or at least mitigated if people voted for the greater good, instead of digging deeper into their lifelong convictions.
I’m quite aware that any conservatives brave enough to have made it this far in this story won’t be swayed by that paragraph. That’s why I’m thankful Garrett is putting in the not-especially-rewarding work of throwing up at least a respectable challenge to a man who has apparently decided that marginalized people are worthless. According to Parkin, running this campaign around unity and decency—rather than actively playing the role of “them” in Jordan’s us-and-them rhetoric—is the right move for the long-shot.
“Persuasion doesn’t happen in an instant,” he said. “Persuasion happens over the course of a decade. And the best thing that you can do as a Democratic candidate in this district is not to hope to go to the northern suburbs of Columbus and convince people, but to make people think to themselves, at least, ‘Okay, she’s not as objectionable I thought.’”
Aside from just turning out as many Democrats as possible, the campaign’s best hope is that enough committed Republicans dislike Jordan—whose far-right Freedom Caucus certainly isn’t beloved by what remains of the pre-Trump Republican establishment—more than they dislike a friendly face who happens to be a Democrat. To extend Parkin’s football analogy, it might be impossible to get a Packers fan to switch allegiances to the Giants, but you could get her to root for the Giants when they play against the Bears.
Anecdotally, I can attest that these people exist. I saw one at a diner counter in Lima who assured Garrett, “Huh! I’m gonna vote for you,” when she informed him that her opponent was Jordan. Garrett also tells her donors about a man she ran into while canvassing, who told her that he couldn’t vote for her because she was a Democrat. When she said who she was running against, he changed his tone.
“Oh no, I hate that guy,” he said. “You got my vote.”
If the final election tallies indicate only a small improvement from 2016, however, it will still be frustrating and depressing as hell for a lot of Garrett’s supporters. Knocking on doors and talking to strangers is draining work, especially if the end result feels like a failure. But does that mean the relatively small percentage of Ohioans in the 4th district who identify as liberal, or anyone in a similar situation, would just give up if their congressman continues not to represent his whole district, or advocate for his most vulnerable constituents’ needs?
“I would like to say they don’t, but why wouldn’t they?” Parkin said. “If you’re living in a district where you lose every single time, and you lose big, you may start to turn your attention elsewhere.”
Garrett and her team may not be fighting to win so much as they’re fighting to keep hope alive for the future of Ohioans left behind by the far right—Ohioans who would hear the Republicans claim that their state is getting exactly what it asked for and respond, “Who the fuck wanted this?” The less isolated those people feel in their own neighborhoods, the better.
One high school kid at Wapakoneta breaks my heart with her question: “One thing I always wonder is, how much politicians actually care about the American people. How much do you truly care about the American people who can’t afford healthcare, or pay for college, or basically anything?”
When she was teaching kindergarten, Garrett says, she led lessons for the children on slavery and the civil rights movement for Martin Luther King Day, and she explained the concept of gay couples to her students. Garrett admits she only got away with it because she was in Oberlin, but man, that’s a revolutionary and important thing for a kindergarten teacher to do. The visits I see her make to local high school classrooms feel like an extension of that work, albeit for an older group of kids that’s just starting to figure out their identity and their place in the larger world.
“It’s important for kids growing up in Republican dominated areas to hear another viewpoint,” Garrett said.
As one of the those former teens who grew up in a district populated by conservatives—who fantasized about running away and could never quite shake a core discomfort about who she was until she got out—I have to say, yes, it absolutely is.
“I worry that if we weren’t here and we didn’t seek out Janet,” Stepp said, “There wouldn’t be a campaign here. And if Jim Jordan went unchallenged this cycle? That would be unacceptable.”
Garrett’s struggle to make inroads against Jordan sums up a consistent Democratic frustration with the Republican party—something like, “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.” It’s fantastic that the Ohio economy is running smoothly overall, and that many more people are working now than they were at the beginning of the decade. I understand how Ohioans with a steady job, who might also be paranoid about ISIS or uninformed enough not to grasp the meaning of a Confederate flag, could believe themselves to be happy with what Jordan and the Republican administration has done.
But prosperity for the majority in the 4th district also blinds the beneficiaries to the issues that matter more than money. Whether you’re a survivor of abuse, or struggling to make ends meet, or mentally different, or—in my case—growing up queer, it can be very easy for marginalized people in solid Republican districts to conclude that they just don’t matter to the majority of their neighbors. That’s not an easy belief to shake once it’s in your head, but it’s challengers like Garrett who can help remind forgotten voters why they matter.
Deadspin senior editor Diana Moskovitz and freelance reporter Edward Sutelan contributed to this report.
Top Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photo: Getty Images, Shutterstock, Facebook/Janet Garrett for Congress)