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Jean Schmidt: A Politician Used to Grueling Runs

Sometimes in politics, a defeat can open the door to an even greater opportunity.

Just ask Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who achieved giant-killer status after knocking off then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004 in his second attempt to win a Senate seat.

Or ask Rep.-elect Jean Schmidt — who lost a GOP state Senate primary by just 22 votes last year but last week emerged victorious in the special election to succeed Rob Portman, the Republican who was recently appointed U.S. trade representative.

Schmidt, 53, will be the first woman to represent Ohio’s 2nd district in Congress — and by most accounts, she will be a colorful addition to the Buckeye State delegation.

Schmidt is an avid long-distance runner, having competed in 54 marathons since 1990, including 14 Boston Marathons. She begins a typical day with a three-mile run.

She also has a long-held affinity for motorsports, having grown up traveling the racetrack circuit with her father, the owner of a car racing team that dominated the area’s sprint car circuit for decades.

“I’d rather smell ethanol than Chanel No. 5,” Schmidt told the Cincinnati Enquirer in a profile last month.

Schmidt, born Jeannette Hoffman, grew up on a family farm in Miami Township in Clermont County, the jurisdiction that ultimately boosted Schmidt to victory last week.

Schmidt, the current president of Greater Cincinnati Right to Life, still lives within a mile of her three siblings, including her twin, Jennifer.

She and her husband, Peter Schmidt, have a daughter, Emilie, who is 27 and teaches dance.

While Schmidt had always taken an active interest in politics — she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Cincinnati in 1974 — her political career didn’t begin until 1989, when she was elected a trustee of Miami Township. She served a decade in that position before being elected to the state House of Representatives in 2000.

Her career in elected office seemed over in March 2004 when Schmidt, with two terms in the state House under her belt, lost the GOP primary for a state Senate seat by just 22 votes out of more than 34,000 cast.

After the initial vote tally, Schmidt had a 62-vote edge, but she eventually conceded the race to then-fellow state Rep. Tom Niehaus (R) after a recount. It was the narrowest primary contest for the state Senate in recent memory.

In the primary, Schmidt was criticized for her support of a $49 billion state budget and an accompanying sales-tax increase — an issue that re-emerged to haunt Schmidt in the special election.

In June, Schmidt won a contentious 11-candidate GOP primary that included Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine, the son of Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), as well as former Rep. Bob McEwen.

The staunchly anti-tax Club for Growth ran TV ads attacking Schmidt for supporting the tax increase, but she ultimately edged out McEwen by about 700 votes.

“Winning is a lot easier than losing, and I’ve worn both sets of shoes,” Schmidt said at her victory celebration after winning the June 14 primary.

After the primary, the Aug. 2 special election was widely viewed as a formality for Schmidt in the heavily Republican 2nd district. In last year’s presidential contest, voters gave President Bush 64 percent of the vote.

But Democrat Paul Hackett, a Marine reservist who returned from a tour in Iraq earlier this year, ran a strong race.

With the hundreds of thousands of dollars Hackett raised via the Internet from party activists, he was able to afford TV advertising — a once inconceivable situation for a Democrat in that position. By election day, both national parties had poured in additional resources on their candidates’ behalf.

In the 24-hours leading up to Tuesday’s election, Schmidt’s marathon-like schedule included campaigning round the clock at Waffle House restaurants.

Ultimately, Schmidt won 52 percent of the vote to Hackett’s 48 percent, making it the closest election the 2nd district has seen since 1974. Schmidt’s large margin over Hackett in her home county of Clermont sealed her closer-than-expected win.

Democrats immediately framed Hackett’s performance as a trouble sign for Republicans nationally, while GOP strategists privately criticized Schmidt as an accidental nominee who ran a mediocre campaign.

Schmidt traveled to Washington on Thursday and scoped out her new office on the second floor of the Cannon Building. Schmidt will occupy Portman’s old office until the next office lottery takes place following the Nov. 2006 elections.

She will not be sworn in until Sept. 6, when Congress returns from the August recess. At that time she will also receive her committee assignments from the Republican Steering Committee.