On the day after the Ohio primary election, President Trump tweeted about Michael DeWine’s victory in the Republican gubernatorial contest: “Congratulations to Mike DeWine on his big win in the Great State of Ohio. He will be great Governor with a heavy focus on HealthCare and Jobs. His Socialist opponent in November should not do well, a big failure in last job!” With less hyperbole (and fewer capital letters) Politico noted a “lack of enthusiasm” among Ohio Democrats, who selected Richard Cordray, the former Ohio attorney general and then the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as their gubernatorial candidate. Statewide, 147,000 fewer Democratic voted than Republicans, and DeWine received 73,000 more votes than Cordray. DeWine also received more votes than Cordray in 76 of Ohio’s 88 counties. Based on these numbers, Ohio Republicans seem to be doing just fine.
But primaries aren’t always good predictors of general elections, and Democrats have several reasons to be more optimistic than the turnout numbers suggest. As David Pepper, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party (ODP), has pointed out, uncompetitive races might have kept voter turnout low for his party’s primary. Even more important, while the raw numbers make the gap between Republican and Democratic turnout seem huge, as a percentage of primary votes cast, Democrats gained ground this year. In 2016, Republicans got 62.5 percent of the state’s 3.2 million primary votes. This year, they won 827,039 votes out a total of 1,524777, or just 54.2 percent. That is a significant drop, especially considering that Ohio Republicans significantly outspent Democrats in the primaries.
Does the drop reflect a return to the Democratic Party by voters who crossed over to vote Republican in 2016? Or did those swing voters just not turn out for the primary? Until we have more data, it’s hard to tell. But regardless of the reason, the gap between the parties seems to be narrowing—a shift that could help Democrats this fall.
Democrats have other reasons for cautious optimism. Among other things, DeWine and Cordray have squared off once before, in the 2010 Ohio attorney general race. DeWine won that race by just over 1 percent, in the midst a Republican wave, as Republican John Kasich was elected Governor and GOP legislators gained control of both Ohio Houses. This year, DeWine’s chief primary opponent was Kasich’s lieutenant governor, Mary Taylor, whom DeWine savaged throughout his campaign. Accusing Taylor of criminal behavior for using a state plane for personal travel, DeWine even appropriated a Trump hashtag—“#LockHerUp”—in one of his tweets. By virtue of such attacks, DeWine may have hurt his standing with moderate Republicans, especially women, many of whom favored Kasich over Trump in the 2016 primary and have been distressed by the president’s conduct. As for Kasich himself, he has yet to endorse DeWine but has said he will support him.
Democrats could also benefit from a spate of scandals involving Ohio Republicans, as they did in 2006, when they interrupted Republicans’ quarter-century dominance of state government by winning all major statewide offices on the basis of a $50 million investment scandal (“Coingate”) and the conviction of Republican governor, Bob Taft, on criminal charges. This year, Republicans are facing charges of fraud related to an online education scheme, the “Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow”; an FBI raid on the office of Republican Speaker of the House Cliff Rosenberger, who later resigned; and an investigation of corruption involving Republicans and payday lenders.
In order to capitalize on the multiple challenges facing the state Republican Party, of course, Ohio Democrats can’t just highlight Republican wrongdoings. They have a potentially persuasive line of attack in the Republicans’ lackluster economic and social record. Job growth in Ohio has remained stagnant and wages are below national averages. Student debt and rates of opioid abuse are among the highest in the country, and Republican tax cuts have not only benefitted the wealthy and corporations, but also depleted funding for public education and left local governments struggling to provide basic services.
Democrats must also articulate a concrete economic and social vision. While progressive candidates like Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senator seeking re-election this year, have been out front campaigning on progressive populist platforms, other statewide candidates have remained largely quiet. Cordray does have progressive credentials as the founding director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He implemented the Dodd-Frank financial bill, challenged Wall Street, and saved consumers billions of dollars. During the primary campaign, he also unveiled a plan for free community college for all Ohio residents. Still, his progressive platform has yet to be fully formed and articulated.
Perhaps Cordray and other statewide candidates will become more policy-oriented now the primaries are over. But they should remember what happened in 2010, when Democratic Governor Ted Strickland, seeking re-election, waited until after Labor Day to ramp up his campaign in earnest. By that time, Kasich had a three-month head start, and Strickland simply could not catch up.
We can’t expect a “Blue Wave” in Ohio this November, thanks to Republican gerrymandering. But if Democrats can mobilize party regulars and win over a number of independents and moderate Republicans, and if they will mount an enthusiastic progressive campaign, they can generate a big enough “Blue Ripple” to win statewide races and bring Ohio back into the ranks of true swing states.