Sykes Faces Challenge in Ohio as Black Democrats Push to Hold White Districts

When Representative Emilia Sykes arrived at the regional airport in Akron on a recent Thursday morning to meet with dozens of local elected officials, she was the only Black person in the room.

It wouldn’t be long before two others took seats in the audience, but it soon became clear that they were both related to her. Ms. Sykes briefly interrupted her remarks to welcome her parents: Vernon Sykes, a state senator, and Barbara Sykes, who sits on the Akron School Board.

It is the kind of room that Ms. Sykes, 38, a first-term Democrat, is familiar with as one of only about a dozen Black members of Congress representing a majority-white district. And as she fights to defend her seat in a year when control of the House of Representatives is up for grabs, it represents a critical piece of the coalition that Ms. Sykes is striving to keep together — one that includes a strong Democratic base but also a sizable portion of independents and moderate Republicans who crossed over to help her win the seat in 2022.

Republicans, who hold a razor-thin majority and are toiling to keep their grasp on the House, have identified her as a top target for defeat in a district rated as a “tossup” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Her G.O.P. challenger, Kevin Coughlin, who is white, is a former state lawmaker who is well known in Akron politics.

For Ms. Sykes, beating back the challenge means reminding voters as clearly and as often as possible what she has done to benefit them directly during her time in Congress. It also means steering clear of the bitter partisanship that is defining the presidential race and trying to keep the focus off President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, both of whom were viewed unfavorably by a majority of respondents in the latest New York Times/Siena poll.

“What my focus is, is making sure that my constituents understand what I’ve been doing,” Ms. Sykes said in an interview. “And we can translate that work into votes.”

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