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House Democrats are retiring in droves. Not Ohio's Marcy Kaptur.

The longest-serving woman in House history could face her toughest election yet because of redistricting. She says she's running again for the Great Lakes — and to "help Joe as much as I can.”
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, at Reynolds Garden Cafe in Toledo.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, at Reynolds Garden Cafe in Toledo.Brittany Greeson for NBC News

TOLEDO, Ohio — Few would be surprised if Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio joined the growing list of Democrats retiring from Congress.

In her 40th year in office, Kaptur is already the longest-serving woman in House history. Her heartland populism — which earned her an invitation to be Ross Perot’s Reform Party running mate in 1996 — has been eclipsed by the angry economic nationalism advanced by right-wing allies of former President Donald Trump. And in a redistricting process that has been slowed by partisanship, Republicans seem determined to redraw her Great Lakes-hugging district in a way that would make it difficult for her to win again.

But at a diner here this week, Kaptur vowed to run for re-election in November, regardless of how the final map looks. If she succeeds, she would surpass Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, who served in both the House and Senate before retiring in 2017, as the longest-serving woman in congressional history.

“God has blessed me with good health so far,” Kaptur, 75, said as she finished a late-morning breakfast of one scrambled egg, fresh fruit, an English muffin and a cup of hot water that she turned into hot chocolate with a packet of sugar-free powder she brought from home.

“What's stored up here, what the people have taught me,” she added, pointing to her head, “is gold. I now clearly see much more than when I was first elected what I can do to try to help this region compete and survive in the years ahead.”

Under the most recent map, Kaptur’s 9th District would cover more rural and conservative areas while no longer stretching from working-class Toledo in Lucas County across Lake Erie’s shoreline and into the Democratic precincts of western Cleveland. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected the map, with justices citing how the heavy tilt toward the GOP and the splitting of three counties ran afoul of voter-approved redistricting reforms. The Republican-controlled Legislature must now consider revisions, but it’s unknown if changes necessary in the Akron, Cleveland and Cincinnati areas will have consequences on Kaptur’s turf.

National Democrats are nervous. This week the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Kaptur to its “Frontline” program for vulnerable members, identifying her district, whatever it ends up being, as a critical battleground for the midterms.

In a post-industrial area where signs at the city limits promise “You Will Do Better In Toledo,” Kaptur frames her case for re-election in parochial terms. The Great Lakes region, she said, deserves a dedicated representative familiar with issues like renewable energy, waterway commerce and the invasive Asian carp that threaten the fishing industry. Legislative leaders downstate in Columbus don’t do enough for Northern Ohio, she argued.

Her pitch reflects how she believes the boundaries should be drawn. She describes the Lake Erie coast as one big community of interest. Retaining a portion of far-flung Cleveland is impractical given the mandate to keep cities and counties together. But Kaptur hopes to at least hold onto Lorain, a lakefront manufacturing city that she already represents, and pick up surrounding Lorain County, a competitive area for Democrats. Both were tacked onto a safe Republican district under the rejected map.

“We are at the southern edge, the warmest edge, of our continent's most valuable asset — our freshwater, the largest body of freshwater on Earth,” said Kaptur, who has proposed a Great Lakes-focused federal program modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur
Rep. Marcy Kaptur chats with Rost Walker, a member of the staff at Reynolds Garden Cafe in Toledo.Brittany Greeson for NBC News

Trump also factors into Kaptur’s decision to run again. She worries about “this invention of nontruths” surrounding the 2020 election and the pro-Trump rioters who stormed the Capitol in an effort to block certification of President Joe Biden’s victory. And she’s not happy that Democrats have moved away from populist ideals, allowing right-wing disruptors like Steve Bannon to make a “wicked recipe” with legitimate concerns about offshoring and outsourcing.

Kaptur refers often to a list that ranks each congressional district by median household income — hers is No. 418 out of 441, including U.S. territories — and blames a consolidation of money and political power in what are typically wealthy Democratic areas.

“Joe Biden is the first president in my lifetime — and that's one reason I'm running again, because I'm going to help Joe as much as I can — that sort of gets it,” she said. “He's a coastal guy from Delaware. … But he grew up the son of a man who lost his job. And that matters.”

Kaptur is no stranger to redistricting challenges. When she took on more rural territory in the 1990s, she boasted to The New York Times that she had “milked my first cow in public recently.” And her current district is one of the more blatant examples of gerrymandering, known as the “Snake on the Lake” when it was drawn a decade ago to force Kaptur into a primary against then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland — an effort to eliminate a Democratic seat.

Until this year, that 2012 primary was Kaptur’s biggest scare. But she outworked Kucinich, beating him by 16 percentage points. In the general election, she easily dispatched Republican Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher — better known as “Joe the Plumber” — who was trying to capitalize on his 15 minutes of political fame after being name-checked in a 2008 presidential debate. Her closest race since was in 2020, when she defeated her GOP opponent by 26 points.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur
Rep. Marcy Kaptur holds a nail file she once handed out during her campaign.Brittany Greeson for NBC News

Republicans appear to be better positioned to take advantage of an opportunity in the Ohio 9th this time, or at least they appeared to be before the state Supreme Court intervened.

State Sen. Theresa Gavarone, a Republican who had lived in a neighboring congressional district, moved to a house within the future projected boundaries and launched a campaign for the seat late last year. State Rep. Craig Riedel of Defiance, a city that would have been added to Kaptur’s district under the rejected map, also announced intentions to run.

Even further afield, Madison Gesiotto Gilbert, an attorney and past Miss Ohio USA who co-chaired a Women for Trump group in 2020, is campaigning for the seat. A day before declaring her candidacy on Twitter, she and her husband bought a home across the state in North Canton, according to property records. House members are not required to live in the districts they represent, and it’s unknown if new boundaries would change any of the GOP candidates’ plans to challenge Kaptur.

“The problem with Marcy Kaptur’s four decades in Congress is that Northwest and Northern Ohio don’t have much to show for it,” Gavarone said in a statement from her campaign. “When we see her in the 9th District, we hear nice talking points about jobs and Lake Erie, but what about the rampant inflation, shuttered small businesses and radical anti-law enforcement policies her party is shoving down our throats?”

Chris Redfern, a former state Democratic Party chair, said he believes that the district will ultimately be drawn more favorably for Kaptur but that she will have the advantage either way.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Redfern, a Kaptur constituent, said of Republicans targeting her for defeat. “Marcy Kaptur doesn’t have to Google her Zip code, unlike Theresa Gavarone and some of these others. Theresa Gavarone is going to show up in the city of Toledo and talk about Marcy Kaptur? Come on. Dennis Kucinich tried to do that 10 years ago.”

CORRECTION (Jan. 29, 2022, 10:12 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the first name of one of Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s Republican opponents. He is Craig Riedel, not Cliff.