Commentary: Can The Suburbs Save Ohio's Swing State Status?

Jan 30, 2019

I suppose this debate over whether Ohio is a red state, a purple state, or blue state with a very faint pulse is going to go on for quite a while.

At least until Donald Trump, whose presence seems to drive everything in American politics these days, is gone from the scene.

And, yes, he will be gone from the scene. Either voted out in 2020 or term-limited out in 2024.

We know which scenario Democrats prefer. And, secretly (although not so secretly as a few months ago), a scenario preferred by a substantial number of Republicans.

Yes, that's right. There are Republicans who, if you got enough bourbon in them, would confess to wishing the 45th president of the United States would just declare victory over his enemies and go away.

Life as a Republican in Congress would be considerably easier.

But this is just a cup of happy tea that makes many Ohio Democrats feel better.

There is a real debate going on about the future of politics in what has traditionally been the ultimate swing state in presidential elections.

If Ohio is now a red state – a really bright, fire-engine red state –  any pundit worth his or her salt is going to have a hard time stating otherwise.

About two weeks ago, Mike Dawson, the creator of ohioelectionresults.com, wrote an op-ed column for The Washington Post where he pulled out a quote from Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper last fall.

Asked if Ohio was becoming a red state, Pepper said, "This November will answer that question."

"Well, it certainly did,'' wrote Dawson, who, for 15 years, was an aide to Republicans George Voinovich, a two-term governor and U.S. Senator, and Mike DeWine, Ohio's former senator and new governor.

Here's the record from 2018:

  • For the seventh time in eight elections, Ohio elected a Republican governor
  • Republican candidates swept all the statewide executive offices for the sixth time in seven elections
  • Between 1970 and 1990, Democrats won 81.5 percent of state executive offices; since then, Republicans have won 80.5 percent

"That run is over,'' Dawson wrote in the Post. "Ohio now votes like a red state. The people running presidential campaigns should study this trend closely before deciding how much time – and how much money – to invest in the Buckeye State."

As you might imagine, Pepper was not at all in agreement with Dawson's conclusions. Pepper – the former Cincinnati council member, Hamilton County commissioner and two-time statewide candidate – has taken heat from many in the party for being at the helm of yet another election where the Democrats were swept in the statewide executive offices.

"Yes, we lean a little red right now," Pepper told WVXU. "But if you look beneath the surface, we were competitive at almost every level."

2014, Pepper said, "is what red was." That's the year an inept Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Ed FitzGerald took only 33 percent of the vote and was steamrolled by incumbent GOP governor John Kasich. The rest of the Democratic statewide ticket went swirling down the drain with him.

Pepper thought Dawson's analysis didn't tell all the story, so Pepper – the author of two political thriller fiction books – knocked out an op-ed column last week for The Hill, a political website that is well-read by the political professionals in Washington.

These are some of Pepper's arguments:

  • Ohio re-elected Sen. Sherrod Brown (now exploring a run for the Democratic presidential nomination) to a third term by nearly seven percentage points. (Most pre-election polls had Brown with a double-digit lead.)
  • Democrats picked up two Ohio Supreme Court seats, including Justice Melody Stewart, the first African-American Democrat candidate ever elected to statewide office. (And note, too, that party designations do not appear on the ballot next to the names of judicial candidates.)
  • Democratic candidates won 49 percent of the total votes cast statewide in legislative races, picking up a net five seats in the Ohio House. Democrats took 48 percent of the vote statewide in the U.S. House race, although they came away winning only 25 percent of the 16 seats.

"That's almost a 50-50 split for the legislature," Pepper told WVXU. "And if it weren't for gerrymandering and a fair amount of voter suppression, we would have done even better."

Mike DeWine, despite having been in elective office for 47 years, won with only 50.4 percent of the vote.

Pepper said DeWine barely won being "a long-time Republican office-holder with an established personal brand that allowed him to thread a precarious needle between John Kasich and Donald Trump."

In 2018, Pepper said, the Democrats had three statewide wins and Republicans just over 50 percent of the vote "in the closest statewide results in 12 years." In other words, since 2006, when Democrat Ted Strickland was elected governor.

Mark R. Weaver, a long-time Republican strategist in Ohio, sent us a rather poetic email response after seeing Pepper's analysis. In fact, it was rather Edgar Allan Poe-esque.

"David Pepper and others who claim Ohio is still the swing state it once was are whistling past the political graveyard, where the tombstones of defeated statewide Democratic candidates loom large under the moonlight,'' Weaver wrote.

Yikes.

After that email, we got Weaver on the phone to elaborate.

Ohio Democrats are still in disarray, Weaver said, and there is no Democratic presidential candidate out there on the other side who might take Ohio away from Trump. Trump won Ohio by about eight percentage points in 2016, befuddling the pollster and the pundits.

Weaver doesn't like Brown's chances of winning the Democratic nomination.

"He may not be liberal enough for where the Democratic Party is right now,'' Weaver said, a reference to Brown's support of some tariffs and opposition to international trade agreements.

"The Democratic Party has abandoned those working people Sherrod talks about,'' Weaver said. "That's how Trump won them over in 2016."

But Weaver did say that there is no question that last year's midterm election showed that Trump is beginning to lose his grip on suburban GOP voters, particularly women.

"It's becoming clear the true Trump faithful are the rural, small town voters,'' Weaver said.

Trump, he said, "won't become a permanent motif for Republicans. Trump is only going to be around for another two or six years, and, after that, there is no obvious person who can inherit his appeal,'' Weaver said. "He will eventually be gone, and Ohioans will turn to others."

That's an area where Pepper and Weaver have some common ground.

The Democratic gains in 2018, Pepper said, "took place in the larger and more quickly growing parts of the state."

Ohio's suburban counties, Pepper said, are quickly becoming like Orange County, Calif., which has gone from a Republican fortress to "deep blue" territory.

Historically, suburban voters in Ohio have been pretty solidly Republican.

That is no longer the case. And the more blue those suburbs become, the better for Democratic candidates in Ohio.

And that could be the ultimate irony – it will be affluent suburban voters who end up saving the Ohio Democratic Party.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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