An Ohio gubernatorial race blow-out? Wouldn't be the first time

Oct 5, 2014

Every sign points to a blow-out in the Ohio governor’s race, with Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald going down to a massive defeat at the hands of Republican incumbent John Kasich.

You never know what might happen to turn that around, but the polls show it coming – a Quinnipiac University poll of likely Ohio voters last week had FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, down by 22 percentage point with about five weeks left.

Even worse, one in four Democratic voters polled by Quinnipiac said they plan to vote for Kasich.

Nonetheless, with bad headlines, terrible poll numbers and very little money to fight back with, FitzGerald is soldiering on. His campaign announced Thursday that he will crisscross the state this month, participating in eight debates, candidate forums and town hall meetings – all of which Kasich was invited to participate in, but, so far anyway, has not accepted the invitations.

If it is, indeed, a blow-out governor’s race, it certainly won’t be the first time. Ohio doesn’t often do very close gubernatorial elections, especially in recent decades.

Only three of the past 10 gubernatorial elections have been decided by two percentage points or less, which happens to coincide with the number of Ohio elections yours truly has covered. The three were Kasich over Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland in 2010 (two percentage points), Republican incumbent Jim Rhodes over Democrat Dick Celeste in 1978 (1.67 percent), and Rhodes over incumbent Democrat John Gilligan in 1974 – the second closest governor’s race in Ohio history, which Rhodes ended up winning by 0.37 percent, or 11,488 votes – less than one vote per precinct.

The only other one that was reasonably close was in 1998, when the governor’s office was wide open; and Republican Bob Taft defeated Democrat Lee Fisher by 5.36 percentage points.

“A blow-out would be the norm; this would not be something out of the ordinary,’’ said long-time Ohio political hand Mike Dawson. “This has been the trend in Ohio for a long time.”

Dawson would know. He was press secretary to former Republican governor George Voinovich and a top aide to Republican Mike DeWine when DeWine was in the U.S. Senate.

He spent 25 years compiling a data base of detailed historical vote results from Ohio elections for president, governor, the U.S. Senate and other statewide races, along with analysis. Dawson put it on a website called ohioelectionresults.com; and it is an excellent and highly accurate tool for historians, journalists, and Ohio political junkies in general.

As far as gubernatorial elections go, Dawson’s website goes back to 1855, the first year the two major political parties – Democratic and Republican – went head-to-head for Ohio governor.

Dawson’s analysis showed that of the 65 races since then, Republicans won 38 and Democrats ended up on top 27 times. Twenty-one of the 65 races were decided by 10 percentage points or more.

The biggest blow-out in the history of Ohio gubernatorial politics took place 20 years ago; and it was a doozy.

Voinovich was running for re-election; and he was a very popular Republican governor, who had considerable support in his home county of Cuyahoga, which is heavily Democrat.

All the big name Democrats in the state with gubernatorial ambitions took a pass on taking on Voinovich; and the Ohio Democratic Party was left with a little-known state senator from eastern Ohio named Rob Burch.

Burch worked like the devil to draw attention to his campaign, but had little money and even less name recognition. He did get one thing that apparently FitzGerald will not get – a televised debate with his opponent.

But it made no difference. Voinovich took nearly 72 percent of the vote, to just 24.98 percent for Burch. The Republican incumbent won in 86 of the state’s 88 counties.

Some people have been drawing parallels between Burch in 1994 and FitzGerald in 2014, but it’s hard to imagine FitzGerald’s numbers being quite that low – there are simply more Democratic voters in Ohio now than there were 20 years ago.

Ohio is a state which switched from two-year terms to four-year terms for governor in 1958. Dawson’s website shows that, since then, all Republican governors have won their re-election campaigns – usually by large margins. Only one Democratic governor – Celeste – has been re-elected to a second four-year term.

So if FitzGerald is blown out of the water on November 4 – something he and the Ohio Democratic Party are not willing to concede – he will have plenty of company in the pantheon of Democratic gubernatorial losers.