When Looking for a “Blue-Wave,” Sweat the Small Stuff

By Joe Scherpenberg

Meet Aftab Pureval: the 36-year-old Democratic challenger to Steve Chabot in OH-01. Pureval’s star shot up after winning an election for Hamilton County Clerk of Courts in 2016. As one of the more closely watched congressional races in the country, Pureval’s campaign has been derailed in the last two months by allegations of election law violations. 

For some background, OH-01 was one of the more competitive congressional districts in the country before the 2010 census, despite Chabot being elected for 22 out of the last 24 years. A Republican-led state legislature redrew district lines adding in solid-red Warren County to OH-01, which offset the predominately-blue city of Cincinnati. Since redistricting, Chabot has won the seat comfortably by at least 19 percentage points, although lack of interest in the race from national Democrats certainly has resulted in candidates with a lower ceiling. Pureval’s entrance was supposed to change this.

Pureval first won county-wide office by defeating incumbent Tracey Winkler. The Winkler name is synonymous with the Republican power brokers in Hamilton County, who have had a tight hold on county offices for a generation. Armed with his clever campaign ads, Pureval is seen as the leader of the next generation of Democrats in Ohio. Despite only holding office since 2016 and not living in the district at the time, Pureval entered the race for OH-01 hoping to capitalize on a “Blue-wave.”

It seemed like Pureval was primed for another upset when in July, Sabato’s crystal ball elevated the race to “toss-up.”Then what seemed like the crest of Pureval’s personal wave hit from repeated allegations of campaign finance violations in September. Essentially, Pureval was accused of using funds from his “Clerk Of Courts” campaign to pay for polling on his congressional bid. Pureval denied any wrongdoing but his campaign couldn’t shake the allegations. A lawsuit was filed against Pureval’s campaign. Then, more recently, allegations were thrown at Pureval’s campaign, this time involving a campaign volunteer posing as a volunteer for Chabot’s campaign.            

The litigation from these allegations didn’t seem to go anywhere. The allegations of campaign finance were dismissed by the Ohio Elections Commission, with the exception of a $100 fine for paying a photographer from the wrong Venmo account, and no charges were formally filed by the Chabot camp for the supposed “double agent.” 

While the legal consequences appear not to have come to fruition, the political ones certainly can be felt by Pureval. Since the high water mark of Sabato moving the race to a toss-up, the allegations dogging the campaign has seen his polling fall back, resulting in the race moved to “lean Republican” and the resignation of Pureval’s campaign manager

The lesson here is the losing the control of the message that can result from any allegation of impropriety, even when they don’t result in formal repercussions.