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Politics
Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Ohio has 6 major cities mostly made up of Democrats. So why do rural Republicans rule the state?

A 2014 view of the Cincinnati skyline.  The Roebling Bridge is in the foreground and the Great American tower with it's "crown" are shown just behind it.
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A 2014 view of the ever changing Cincinnati skyline.

There is a question I have heard a lot over the past 30 years from friends and colleagues who come to Ohio for work or college from eastern seaboard states that are reliably blue in their politics — places like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts.

The question usually goes something like this:

How is it that Ohio, with a half dozen major cities and eight media markets, where Democrats dominate local offices, have a state legislature that is so overwhelmingly Republican red?

It’s a really good question, a question with no easy answer. But the answer can be put in understandable context.

It boils down to this — once you have seized power in the Ohio Statehouse, the system makes it very hard for the other party to pry it away from you.

When you have that kind of power, you can have exactly what Ohio has right now — a legislature dominated by ultra-conservatives in the farmland and the suburbs, who, with their super-majority, can do whatever they please — whether making it easier to carry concealed weapons, eliminating abortion, or controlling the curriculum of public school systems and state universities by setting up straw men like "Critical Race Theory."

In other words, they can do whatever they want and no one can stop them. Least of all the urban Democrats.

And much of that is about the gerrymandering of state legislative districts, which, in 2022, has exploded into a legal battle between a four-member majority of the Ohio Supreme Court and the Republicans in the legislature, most of whom are from Ohio's rural farmland and Appalachian foothills, small towns, or suburban areas.

"The rural versus urban debate is one that goes back to the very beginning of this country,'' said Kevin Spiker, a history professor at Ohio University's eastern campus in St. Clairsville. "It’s the same debate you see reflected in Ohio, particularly in the Ohio General Assembly."

To understand this, it's helpful to consider some facts about the political make-up of Ohio:

  • Ohio is not a blue state; it is not a red state. It is a purple state. We know that because of the pattern over the past 30 years in presidential elections, which has bounced back and forth from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Think about that for a moment. That is quite an extraordinary swing.
  • More than 50% of Ohio's 11.8 million people live in the 10 most populous of the state's 88 counties.
  • Only seven of Ohio's 88 counties chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020 — Hamilton, Cuyahoga, Franklin, Montgomery, Lucas, and Summit — all big city counties except little old Athens County, home to Ohio University and the blue dot in the middle of very red Southeast Ohio.
  • The overall vote in Ohio elections over the last decade favors Republicans, who have won 54% of the vote compared to 46% for Democratic candidates. Nonetheless, the Republicans have a vise-grip on the Ohio General Assembly, holding an astounding 72% of the Ohio House and Senate seats, giving them veto-proof super-majorities in both chambers. Is it any wonder, then, that ultra-conservative Republicans from Trump counties can pass any piece of legislation they want and make it stick?
  • In some states, the most powerful politicians in the legislature are from the state's biggest cities. Not so in Ohio — the two most powerful men in the Ohio General Assembly — House Speaker Robert Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman — are both from Lima in Allen County. Lima's a fine town, home to the army tank plant and the local delicacy, Kewpee Burgers, but no one will ever mistake it for a metropolis.

What you end up with is a majority in the legislature that seems often to be more interested in pursuing an agenda that plays to the Trump majorities in their rural/small town/suburban districts than in addressing issues that a majority of Ohioans are interested in.

This leads to frustration for people like John T. McNay, a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati's Blue Ash campus. He is also the chair of the American Association of University Professors' government relations committee and has regular dealings with Ohio legislators in Columbus.

"They keep coming up with things that take us by surprise,'' McNay said. "We keep saying to them, 'Just come to us and talk about it before you take on things like critical race theory.' But they almost never do that.

"We want to talk to them about what we see as real problems in higher education, things like funding, faculty being turned into part-timers, or these grandiose building projects that state universities have," McNay said. "But they want to rail against CRT, a bogeyman manufactured by right-wing forces.

"Honestly, I don't think they really care about what we have to say,'' McNay said. "They only care about their political agendas. It is extremely frustrating."

Controlling the process of drawing legislative districts has kept the Republicans in power for the better part of the past 30 years

Democrats have not had a majority in the Ohio Senate in the past 30 years. They are currently outnumbered 25-8. Democrats controlled the Ohio House from 1992 through 1994 and in 2009 and 2010, but the partisan split is very wide today, with 64 House Republicans and 35 Democrats.

This year, with new constitutional requirements on redistricting in place — rules adopted overwhelmingly by Ohio voters in 2015 and 2018, the GOP's march to preserve their veto-proof super-majority in the legislature has been slowed down, but not stopped, by resistance from an Ohio Supreme Court majority — a majority that insists the Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission follow the law.

But the Republicans are fighting the rules tooth and nail.

"Once patterns of redistricting are in place, they are very difficult to break,'' Spiker said. "You see that playing out here in Ohio now."

As long as the Republicans in the Ohio Statehouse hold the pen that draws the legislative district maps, they will be in charge — unless they push their luck too far with unpopular legislation and the tide turns on them. But that doesn't seem likely any time soon.

For the time being, big city dwellers in Ohio must face the facts — two guys from Lima run your state.