Is Ohio Red, Blue Or Purple? 2018 Election Will Decide

Jan 15, 2017

Red, blue or purple.

Those are the three choices on the political spectrum for a city, a county, or a state.

Ohio voters will pick their favorite color in 2018, the next round of statewide elections, in every office from governor and U.S. senator on down.

And how they choose might determine whether the pendulum swings back from red to blue, or at least, purple, in a state where all the statewide constitutional officeholders are Republican and where Donald Trump stunned Ohio Democrats in November by winning Ohio's 18 electoral votes by a sizeable margin.

"This will be a big moment for the Ohio Democratic Party,'' said Kyle Kondik, an Ohioan who is managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a closely-watched political newsletter published by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and its director, Larry J. Sabato.

"This 2018 election will be very important for them,'' Kondik said. "It's important that they put up strong candidates for all the statewide offices."

The last few election cycles in Ohio have shown a decided red-tinge. Ohio, Kondik said, "might be starting to trend to a state where Republicans becoming the dominant party."

Whether or not 2018 will be a bounce-back year for Ohio Democrats depends on three things.

First and foremost, they must have a stable of credible and well-funded candidates who are thoroughly vetted. The last thing they want is a candidate for governor or any other statewide office who might look good on the outside, but, if you scratch the surface, you find all sorts of problems and potential scandals – i.e., Ed FitzGerald, the 2014 candidate for governor who turned into a total disaster after one negative story after another came out about his background.  

FitzGerald, then the Cuyahoga County Executive, probably couldn't have won anyway, but his problems and the negatives news stories about him handed re-election to Gov. John Kasich easily. It was like Joey Votto hitting a baseball off a baseball tee. Kasich couldn't miss. He didn't even have to break a sweat.

"That's the last thing Ohio Democrats want to have to go through again,'' said Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper, who ran unsuccessfully for Ohio attorney general in 2014. "There's going to be a long deliberative process with our candidates, including a vetting process, which everyone wants us to do after FitzGerald.

Secondly, the Democrats believe that history is on their side. Almost all of the mid-term elections in the past 50 years have been good for the Democrats if the Republicans held the White House. That trend will have to continue.

And whether or not it does depends a whole lot on the third condition – that, by the time the 2018 statewide elections are in full swing, Ohioans are fed up with President Trump and with the Republican leadership in Congress; and are ready to vote for change.

"Nobody knows the answer to that one,'' Kondik said. "That's impossible to predict. But it will make a big difference. If Trump is unpopular, it can help elect Democrats in places like Ohio."

Some might accuse him of whistling past the graveyard, but Pepper is optimistic on that score.

"It's hard for me to imagine that, in 2018, there will be a fervor to elect more Republicans to help Donald Trump,'' Pepper said.

Another potential piece of good news for Democrats is that that the statewide offices – governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor – are all held by term-limited Republicans and will be wide-open in 2018.

The bad news for Democrats there, though, is that just about all of those term-limited statewide officeholders (with the exception of Kasich) have either announced or are preparing to run for different state offices.

Treasurer Josh Mandel, who ran against Ohio's senior senator, Sherrod Brown, in 2012 and lost, is at it again, gearing up to take on Brown in 2018.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has already announced as a candidate for governor; Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor are likely to follow suit and create a GOP gubernatorial primary.

And auditor Dave Yost has made it quite clear he intends to be the GOP candidate for attorney general – although he too could have a primary.

DeWine, Husted, Taylor, Yost, Mandel – these are all GOP names who have proven they can win statewide elections.

The Ohio Democratic Party is not short of ambitious politicians who want to move up the ladder, but they are a tad short on candidates who have actually run for statewide office and won.

The most notable Democrat who has done that is Richard Cordray, who, in 2013, began a five-year term as the first director of the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

There are many Ohio Democrats who believe that Cordray, who has been elected both state treasurer and attorney general in the past, is the strongest potential candidate the Democrats have for governor.

But U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles is clearly interested in running for governor, as is Ohio Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni of Boardman. Former state representative Connie Pillich of Montgomery is also considered a possible contender, although some see her in a slot further down the ticket.

Here's Cordray's problem: In the position he holds now, he can't do any politicking.

Some Republican senators are pushing Trump to fire Cordray, whose term ends in July 2018 – too late for a statewide political campaign. Many Republicans in Congress think Cordray has been too aggressive in pursuing financial institutions on behalf of consumers. Since its creation, CFPB has returned more than $11 billion in refunds for consumers.

Under Dodd-Frank, the law that created the CFPB, the director can only be fired "for cause" such as neglect of duty; and no one has ever accused Cordray of that.

Last October a federal appeals court ruled that the director has too much power and that the president should be able to fire him for any reason, as with any other appointee.

Cordray's agency is appealing the ruling; and some in Ohio Democratic politics say there is no way Cordray would leave his post until this legal issue is resolved.

But Trump, according to a report in the Huffington Post Friday, has talked to former Texas Republican congressman Randy Neugebauer about taking over the bureau. Neugebauer was a consistent critic of the CFPB under Cordray. 

So Cordray might well end up getting fired by Trump. 

And many Ohio Democrats believe that Cordray really wants to run for governor; and he just might be the strongest candidate the Ohio Democratic Party has, even though he has been out of office in Ohio since 2011.

With his record at CFPB, Pepper said, Cordray "would have a very strong case to make."

How many other candidates could say they delivered $11 billion to consumers?

Ryan, Pepper said, "works well in both red and blue counties."

He comes from the Mahoning Valley, which is a part of the state where Trump had considerable appeal in the November election.

"Tim Ryan has a raw and rare political talent to get people motivated, especially when he is talking to people who voted for Trump,'' Pepper said.

The Democrats have a fairly deep bench of candidates for statewide office. Two big-city mayors who are running for re-election this year – Cincinnati's John Cranley and Dayton's Nan Whaley – are on that list, but it is hard to imagine them mounting statewide campaigns the year after running in mayoral elections.

The mayor of Lorain, Chase Ritenauer,  has said he is interested in being the Democratic candidate for state auditor, while Keith Faber, who recently left the Ohio Senate presidency, is a likely Republican candidate.

Back in July, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach of Cleveland and State Rep. Kathleen Clyde of Kent were working the crowd of Ohio delegates and their guests. Dettelbach is open about his plans to run for attorney general; and Clyde has made no secret of the fact that she wants to be Ohio's secretary of state.

State Rep. Alicia Reece of Cincinnati has also been mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of state.

On the Republican side, State Sen. Frank LaRose of Copley, an Iraq war veteran, is a possible candidate for secretary of state.

Former Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Leland, now a state representative, is likely to run for state treasurer. On the Republican side, Franklin County Auditor Clarence Mingo is probably going to run for treasurer.

Obviously, it is very early in the process. The new president is still five days away from taking office. Much could change on the Ohio political landscape between now and January 2018.

But this is the fact of the matter – the Ohio Democratic Party has a lot riding on 2018.

Even Pepper says it.

Red or blue.

"This election in 2018 will decide that question,'' Pepper said. "Are we going red? Or will we bounce back?"