In Ohio, a new congressional district that stretches along Lake Erie between Toledo and Cleveland has become a political portrait of polarized America.
The 9th District is one of the results of Ohio's loss of two representatives following the last census. The primary for the redrawn district pitted two longtime Democratic incumbents against each other. Now the victor, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, is taking on a Republican known for his role in the 2008 presidential election.
In his working-class Toledo neighborhood, Joe Wurzelbacher can point out the very spot where, four years ago, he stepped in front of a TV camera trained on presidential candidate Barack Obama, who was in town canvassing for votes.
He told Obama that he was getting ready to buy a company that made more than $250,000 a year. "Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?" he asked.
Candidate Obama proceeded to explain his tax plan, at one point saying that it was important to "spread the wealth around." That remark didn't play well for the Democrat, who was accused by GOP rival John McCain of being out of touch with the tax burden borne by working-class America — exemplified by "Joe the Plumber."
Four years later, Wurzelbacher has ridden his fame as "Joe the Plumber" into the role of GOP standard-bearer against Kaptur.
Dave Cohen of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics says the candidates offer voters a stark choice.
"Marcy Kaptur represents, really, the consummate insider politician. She's been a fairly moderate Democrat, very strong on defense. And Wurzelbacher, he represents, really, the Tea Party movement — anti-establishment — and is very much respected and somewhat beloved by social conservatives," Cohen says. "The 9th District race is really a nice microcosm of the battles and the culture wars that are going on in the country right now."
The battle for the 9th District also demonstrates the financial challenges of mounting a modern political campaign. Kaptur says raising money is tough.
"We now have to advertise in two media markets, Cleveland and Toledo, and Cleveland is five times more expensive than the western part of the state," she says. "So, it's quite a daunting task, and there's never enough."
While Wurzelbacher can't match Kaptur's accumulated war chest and national contacts, he's using his renown as "Joe the Plumber" to attract campaign dollars.
"We have an online presence that's pretty huge," he says. "Part of that, obviously, comes from my run-in with Barack Obama. So, we can reach pretty much all of the country and fundraise."
But reaching all over the country has meant that more than three-quarters of each candidate's funding has come from outside Ohio, according to an NPR analysis of Federal Election Commission reports this cycle.
"That might show you how bad the economy is around here and how tight it is," Wurzelbacher says. "People don't want to give money; it's very difficult for them."
Kaptur argues that most of her funders, even those with outside addresses, have roots in Ohio. Still, she's concerned about how much of her time is devoted to fundraising.
"It's turned into an endless campaign, where you're having to raise all these very egregious amounts of money just to be able to compete," she says. "When you have some campaigns where you're raising 20 and 30 times more than the job pays, it's out of bounds."
And when the majority of that money is coming from outside donors, instead of constituents, it's likely to change the nature of the race.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.