Why Democrats Lose in Ohio

(Photo: AP/John Minchillo)

Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, at a Hillary Clinton event on October 24, 2016, in Dayton, Ohio.

When a Monday Night Football game seemed lost in the 1970s, the late sports announcer Don Meredith would begin singing the Willie Nelson song, “The Party’s Over.” Many Ohio Democrats are now singing the same tune about the Ohio Democratic Party (ODP), and for good reason.

Ohio Democrats have suffered two decades of major defeats. Ohio Republicans have a 12-to-4 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives; Democrats hold only nine seats in the 33-seat Ohio Senate and only 33 of 99 seats in the Ohio House. The last statewide election that Democrats won for an executive branch seat was in 2008.

This series of ODP defeats foreshadowed Hillary Clinton’s Ohio defeat in the 2016 election, and it may also put Senator Sherrod Brown, one of the nation’s most prominent liberal Democrats, in danger of losing his 2018 re-election bid. In addition, if Democrats want to control redistricting after the 2020 census, they need to win races for governor and secretary of state in 2018.

So how has the ODP responded? In an op-ed in The Cincinnati Enquirer, ODP Chairperson David Pepper suggested: “More than any specific plans and strategies, we need public servants at all levels to display the patriotism and backbone—the guts—of [John] Glenn. At this perilous moment, our country’s fate depends on it. Our state’s does as well.” He’s right, but Pepper has never publicly acknowledged the party’s own failures. The party should have done a better job of recruiting stronger candidates, developing political strategies, and building local support.

The state party’s general cluelessness should be cueing up an insurrection within the ODP, just as the establishment’s inability to change and win has done in other states. Politico reports that ongoing tensions between the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders camps have resulted in proxy wars and calls for purges within state Democratic parties in Iowa, Washington, Wisconsin, Florida, and Wyoming. Sanders activists elected more than 500 delegates to the upcoming convention of California’s Democratic Party.

Nothing like this has happened in Ohio. No challenges have been mounted to the Democratic leadership in this former battleground state, where Sanders received almost as many votes as Clinton. Despite Clinton’s defeat in November, and two decades of ODP failures, the party seems unwilling to seriously reconsider its political organization and strategies.

One reason for the absence of a challenge is that Pepper’s term as state chair isn’t up until 2018. He can only be replaced if he decides to resign—a development which would not be welcomed by the cluster of Columbus-based political consultants nor by the party’s major donors, who exercise significant control over the state party, who (in the case of the consultants) benefit financially from the current regime, and who, accordingly, are not eager to upset the status quo. In a recent post-election evaluation of party losses in the last four election cycles, a number of Democratic activists have called for unraveling “the interconnected web of consultants who have a stranglehold on the ODP. … These consulting firms, as well as the individuals who own, operate and/or work for them, have received hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions of dollars during this period without any accountability or measurement of effectiveness.”

Unable to change the ODP’s leadership, Sanders supporters are focusing on building their grassroots organizations, joining forces with other state and national groups, and cultivating support for Sanders’s most prominent Ohio backer, former State Senator Nina Turner, to run for governor. Some Sanders supporters have begun looking for viable candidates for local and regional party positions and potential candidates to run for office in 2018. As yet, few have materialized. Following the recent protests and marches, some such candidates will probably emerge. Even the best candidates, however, will need a strong Democratic Party infrastructure—and that doesn’t exist in Ohio.

All this is in stark contrast to the state’s Republican Party. Despite the Republicans’ consistent success over the past few decades, this year’s Trump insurgency led to a hostile takeover. Ultra-conservative Trump supporter Jane Timken deposed Republican state chairperson Matt Borges, who had been considered the possible next leader of the Republican National Committee. But Borges was the candidate of mainstream Ohio Republicans and Governor John Kasich, rendering him anathema to Trump’s supporters.  

Kasich is now viewed in Republican circles as traitor for not supporting Trump. The far-right Trump supporters now in control of both houses of the Ohio General Assembly have marginalized Kasich. Extremist legislation has and will abound—and if Kasich tries to fight, his vetoes can be easily overridden. Already the legislature has passed a ban on local minimum-wage legislation, an abortion “heartbeat bill,” and a reduction in state renewable energy and efficiency standards. Kasich vetoed the “heartbeat bill” but quickly accepted a ban on abortion after 20 weeks. He vetoed the energy legislation, while acknowledging broader and still anti-environmental energy legislation would be forthcoming. He had no trouble at all, however, letting the ban on local minimum wages stand.

Potential Republican candidates in 2018 have quickly embraced the Trump wing of the party. State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who cozied up to Trump early on, quickly positioned himself as the leading conservative candidate to take on Brown. Those Republican gubernatorial candidates to succeed the term-limited Kasich who resisted Trump's descent into misogyny, racism, and xenophobia and stayed loyal to Kasich and the party establishment have moved to the political right. Former Senator Mike DeWine, for instance, endeavored to shore up his conservative credentials by sitting behind Senator Jeff Sessions at the hearings for Sessions’s attorney general nomination. Meanwhile, Kasich’s Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor, also a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, abruptly shifted her support to Jane Timken in her successful effort to depose Matt Borges.

Given Republican success and Democratic haplessness, the future looks bleak for Ohio Democrats. If the Republicans control the redistricting process in 2020, they can extend their lock on the state legislature to 2030. The only contested legislative elections that would matter would occur in Republican primaries, where the fight would be over which candidate is more conservative. Democrats would control a few safe districts, but unless the party reinvigorates itself, their legislative caucuses would plod along bereft of leaders and ideas, and unable to serve as a training ground for future leaders.

The only current hope for Ohio Democrats involves the split within the Republican Party. Kasich and his supporters are not happy with the direction of the ORP. Nor is Senator Rob Portman. Both were close to Borges, who missed re-election by just one vote. The lingering effects of a split or an implosion of Trump could provide an opening for the Democrats, if they have the smarts and resources to exploit it.

The most productive tack the Democrats could take would be to begin organizing ballot initiatives to roll back unpopular GOP legislation, such as the bill prohibiting cities from raising the minimum wage, or to enact progressive reforms, such as raising the minimum wage statewide, developing a new formula for school funding, or improving the electoral system (by using mail ballots, for example). All these direct-democracy initiatives have public support and that of Ohio Democrats’ most successful office-holders, Senator Brown and Representative Tim Ryan. Such initiatives could strengthen the party and give Democratic candidates statewide an attractive platform to run on.

Sherrod Brown aside, however, the pool of potential Democratic candidates in 2018 is weak, especially for governor. The Plain Dealer humorously used a Star Wars opening crawl  to identify 17 potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates with little name recognition save for Richard Cordray, who became a right-wing lightning rod, though not quite a progressive icon, from his stint as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If the Democrats fail to go the initiative route, and don’t bring new blood into its leadership, the party may be over, indeed.

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