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What went wrong with Mike Rulli’s winning campaign?

David Skolnick

The day before the special 6th Congressional District election, a Republican I’ve known for years texted me: “You get the feeling tomorrow’s special is going to be a lot closer than people think? I do.”

On the night of the election, the Republican texted me, “Looks like I even underestimated how bad he did.”

Michael Rulli, a Republican state senator with two grocery stores in Mahoning County, beat unknown Democrat Michael L. Kripchak 54.7% to 45.3% in a district that has an 18% advantage for Republicans based on voting results in partisan statewide elections over the past decade. Republican Donald Trump won the district in the 2020 presidential election by 29% over Democrat Joe Biden.

Also, Ohio’s 6th is the congressional district that moved farthest right in presidential elections in the entire nation from 2008, when it backed Democrat Barack Obama by a 7.8% margin, to Trump’s 29% victory.

In the 2022 election in the 6th, then-incumbent Republican Bill Johnson beat Democrat Lou Lyras 67% to 32.3%.

So why did Rulli fare so poorly in comparison?

Republicans and Democrats I’ve spoken to about this race — and there’s been a lot of them — say Rulli ran a virtually nonexistent campaign despite having money to spend and much better name recognition than Kripchak, particularly in Mahoning and Columbiana counties, the district’s population centers along with Stark County.

Rulli did little campaigning.

Credit must be given to Kripchak, running for office for the first time with no support from the Democratic establishment. He worked very hard, but a limited budget and the numbers of Republicans compared to Democrats, it was impossible for him to win. Still, a 9.4% defeat in this district is impressive.

The other factor is this was a special election. Ohioans are not used to voting on June 11 and with only a single election on the ballot — and many Republicans thinking Rulli had the race won — voters stayed home.

Turnout in Mahoning County was 14.5%, which was significantly better than the 8% predicted by Tom McCabe, director of the county board of elections.

Mahoning, by far the most-populous county, had the highest turnout percentage. It also means 85.5% of those registered in the county didn’t vote in this election.

Overall turnout in the entire district was even worse at 11.2%.

Ohio Democratic Party Chairwoman Elizabeth Walters said: “While we shouldn’t draw too many lessons from a single election, this race makes it clear that it’s a mistake to completely write off Ohio.”

Rulli himself said he was “absolutely surprised it was this close,” but “we never saw a blowout.”

He pointed to the district being represented several years ago by Democrats Ted Strickland and Charlie Wilson. But the district’s politics have sharply turned Republican since Wilson last held the seat in 2010 as shown by the presidential shift.

The bitter Republican primary that saw Rulli win by about 8.5% over state Rep. Reggie Stoltzfus, despite only winning Mahoning and Columbiana counties, also played a factor in the special general election. Stoltzfus supporters didn’t coalesce around Rulli in the general.

While Rulli won nine of the 11 counties in the special general, the margins of victory were low.

Some Republicans didn’t see Rulli as conservative enough while more moderate voters were turned off by his guns, fracking, immigration reform and Trump platform.

Rulli won Washington County, where Johnson lived for years, by only 5.3%. He won the portion of Stark County that’s in this district, and where Stoltzfus resides, by just 4%.

Rulli got crushed in the portion of Tuscarawas County in the district. Kripchak won the county by 12.8%. Trump won it by 32.8% in 2020.

Kripchak also won Mahoning County by 14 votes. Rulli, who represented the county for more than five years in the state Senate, got 78.6% of the Mahoning vote in the Republican primary.

Mahoning, a Democratic stronghold for decades, largely backed Republicans in the 2022 election. Rulli got 77.5% of the vote in that county during his state Senate win over Democrat Robert F. Hagan, a former longtime state legislator.

Rulli and Kripchak face each other again in the Nov. 5 general election.

That election will feature an entire slate of candidates — with Trump at the top of the ticket. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Rulli win by a greater margin, but it will largely be because he’ll be part of the Republican slate in a GOP district.

Have an interesting story? Contact David Skolnick by email at dskolnick@vindy.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @dskolnick.

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