Once a key swing state, it’s been 30 years since Democrats controlled Ohio’s Statehouse and a decade since a Democrat was governor. The state went for Donald Trump in 2016, and the 2020 election cemented even further the GOP dominance of Buckeye politics.
The job of changing that has fallen to Liz Walters, a Summit County council member and the first woman elected to head the Ohio Democratic Party. She must work hard and fast, now that U.S. senator Rob Portman will step down in 2022.
Veteran state political commentator Howard Wilkinson is more than blunt about the state of Ohio’s Democrats: "It's pretty bleak. You can’t lose 15 state constitutional offices in a row. You can’t lose two presidential elections in a row and not have a serious problem on your hands," Wilkinson, of WVXU public radio in Cincinnati said.
Both the 2020 and 2016 results show how scarlet the state has become.
About 77 percent of voters turned out last November. Donald Trump won handily, with 53% of the vote. Four years earlier, he’d captured 51% of ballots. And in both elections, traditional Democratic areas moved increasingly into the GOP column.
Mahoning County’s flip bright red was 2020’s big surprise. For the first time, Republicans climbed above 50% in presidential voting.
A problem decades in the making
Political consultant Mary Anne Sharkey says the Democrats have been in trouble since the '80s, when Gov. Dick Celeste held two terms. “When Celeste was governor, the Democratic party dominated," Sharkey said. "Then we had the era of Voinovich and Taft. Those two were proven vote-getters. They both had great names and they were both moderate Republicans.”
Since then, Republicans have strengthened their hold with strong fundraising and a deep bench. “When they put Voinovich in, they knew their next candidate was gonna be Taft. It’s just like now, DeWine is there. Who’s the next candidate? Husted.”
Sharkey says the Democrats lack seasoned candidates who can attract voters across the state. That disadvantage will make it hard to flip U.S Sen. Rob Portman’s seat next year. "For Democrats to win statewide, they have to continue to be strong in the cities. They have to get much better voter turnout, then they have to win Youngstown and Lorain back," Sharkey said. "All that’s a pretty tall order."
Meanwhile, Republicans have controlled the political map-making in the state, drawing legislative and congressional boundaries to heavily favor their candidates.
In the past, Democrats could count on the “3 Cs” - turnout in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. But Wilkinson says that strategy ran into Ohio’s changing demographics. “People underestimate the power that rural counties have in a statewide election," he said. "Individually they don’t amount to much at all. You put them all together and they’re a solid, solid Republican block.”
Broadening their appeal
New ODP chair Walters says the party must reach out to suburban and rural voters. "There will never be a time when the party walks away from the three Cs," she said. "The important thing, we have to move away from the idea that we have to choose between working in those 3 Cs and other places. We have to do it all."
One key is recognizing Ohio’s unique demographics. The state is older, Whiter and less educated than the nation at large. Techniques that helped flip Georgia, don’t necessarily fit here, Walters says.
“Often in (the) party we look to states that are having success and say, 'We need to be them.' The important part for Ohio is to recognize what we are, but we can still learn from those folks. “
Meanwhile, when it comes to energizing their own voters, Democrats have been faltering -- most notably in Cleveland. Only 56% of eligible voters turned out last November The city continues to lose population to the suburbs. And while Democrats remain a strong presence, the number of Republican voters has been increasing in Cleveland neighborhoods and its suburbs.
"Cincinnati area is far more reliably Democrat these days," Wilkinson said, "and surely Columbus and Franklin County are."
In order to maintain its grip on Cuyahoga, Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) says Democrats have to strengthen their appeal to African American voters, Democrats need to register voters now, she says, not wait until the next major election cycle.
"The secretary of state just did a voter purge and that historically is black and brown people," Sykes said. "There’re going to be municipal elections happening and that is a great opportunity to lay the foundation and groundwork of how well Democrats can and will work for people if we can earn the vote."
New party Chair Walters agrees that Democrats can’t be on a “boom or bust” cycle when it comes to wooing voters. She’s convinced better outreach and more visibility will help the party make Ohio a battleground state again.