SUDDES: Election underscored long, slow decline of Ohio Democratic Party

But for Democrats’ capture of a Cincinnati-area U.S. House seat – not entirely a surprise – Tuesday’s election underlined yet again the long, slow decline of the Ohio Democratic Party.

Tuesday also heralded the emergence of a potential national Republican star: U.S. Sen.-elect J.D. (James David) Vance, a Middletown native who now lives in Cincinnati. Vance, who’s never before held public office, age 38, appears to be the youngest person Ohioans have elected to the U.S. Senate since popular election of senators began in 1914. Time is on his side.

True, with scanty help from Democrats in Washington, lame-duck U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, a suburban Warren Democrat, gave Vance a spirited race. But it’s also telling that Republican Vance, not Ryan, carried the two core counties in Ryan’s U.S. House district – Trumbull (Warren) and Mahoning (Youngstown), once Democratic heartlands in Ohio.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, at one point seen as damaged goods because of right-wing unrest due to the governor’s COVID-19 stewardship, carried 85 of Ohio’s 88 counties Tuesday (exceptions: Cuyahoga, Franklin and, predictably, Athens). DeWine drew 63% of the statewide vote to the 37% drawn by Democratic challenger Nan Whaley.

Ohio Republicans also kept control of Ohio’s other four statewide executive offices – by roughly 60% of the votes cast for each. And the comfortable re-election victory of Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a suburban Columbus Republican, helps position LaRose for his all-but-announced 2024 challenge to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Cleveland Democrat.

As if those executive branch victories weren’t enough, Ohio Republicans kept the Ohio Supreme Court 4-3 Republican on Tuesday. And voters also gave the Ohio Senate a 26-7 GOP majority, the largest such majority by either party since the Senate took its present form in 1967.

And to cement the GOP’s Statehouse hold, voters may have – the results aren’t final – boosted the House’s 64-seat Republican majority to at least 67 seats, maybe 68 seats. At at either higher number that would also be the largest Ohio House majority ever elected by either party since Ohio went to a 99-seat House, also in 1967.

Having at least 66 House seats matters because declaring a bill an emergency measure requires 66 votes. (The Senate GOP already has the needed votes). If the General Assembly declares a bill an emergency measure – say, for example, a bill banning abortion in Ohio – that means voters aren’t allowed to call a statewide up-or-down (“referendum”) vote on that particular bill. Voters instead would likely have to petition for a constitutional amendment ballot issue, which requires many more signatures.

True, the politically lopsided legislature is in part due to Republican gerrymanders in 2011 and then this year of the General Assembly’s districts. As previously estimated, while Ohio House Republicans didn’t run candidates in nine Ohio House districts (about one in 10), House Democrats didn’t run anyone in 19 districts (about one in five). An opposition party is supposed to do just that – oppose – not operate a Welcome Wagon for the majority party.

When Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste was inaugurated in 1983, there was only one Republican statewide elected officer – then-Supreme Court Justice Robert E. Holmes. Now, the only statewide elected Democrats, besides Sherrod Brown, are Justices Jennifer Brunner, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody J. Stewart. And Tuesday, voters promoted Republican Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, not Democrat Brunner, to be chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Bottom line: Democrats are an endangered species in Ohio politics – not so much because of their foes, but because of themselves. Ohio has changed. Democrats haven’t changed enough.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at tsuddes@gmail.com.

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