President William McKinley

Presidents Day: Can Ohio ever again be a cradle for presidents?

The state has had a 95-year drought in the White House.

Every fourth grader who paid attention during Ohio history knows it is the “cradle of presidents” — giving U.S. history William McKinley, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant and five others.

But that cradle’s been empty a long time. The last time an Ohioan served as president — Warren Harding in 1923 — Ellis Island was still open, Wrigley Field was still under construction and presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush hadn’t been born yet.

Why the long drought?

“Ohio is a mainstream state that tends to elect mainstream candidates,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster in suburban Washington. “The mainstream candidates from either side of the aisle don’t tend to have strong access in presidential primaries of late.”

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Voters will have to decide if Republican John Kasich and Democrat Sherrod Brown are too “mainstream” for the presidency. Both are considering presidential bids in hopes of ending the state’s 95-year absence from the White House. (Kasich was actually born in Pennsylvania, though he’s made Ohio his home for more than 45 years, while Brown was born in Mansfield.)

If Kasich runs, it will be his third attempt. He briefly sought the 2000 Republican nomination, and then tried again in 2016, winning just one primary state: Ohio. Brown, on the other hand, landed on Hillary Clinton’s list of possible running mates, but she chose Virginia senator Tim Kaine instead.

Changing era

Ohio’s recent back-seat status when it comes to presidential candidates is a far cry from the immediate period after the Civil War, when the cradle of presidents label was well deserved.

Ulysses S. Grant of Ohio served as president from 1869 to1877. History has generally given the post-Civil War presidents such as Grant poor reviews, but historian James Robenalt said the group had to unify the nation after the fractious war. File photo
Photo: Washington Bureau

From 1869 to 1881, Ohio owned the presidency, with Grant serving from 1869 to 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes from 1877 to 1881 and Garfield from March 1881 until his assassination six and a half months later. All were from Ohio.

History has generally given those presidents poor reviews, but James Robenalt, a presidential historian and Cleveland-based attorney, said they were the group that had to unify the nation after the Civil War.

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“They knit the country back together again,” he said.

Back then, as Ohio was considered a swing state because it had both northern and southern-style components, said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. During that era – when Republicans were a party of the north and Democrats a party of the south – “there was a real feeling that having an Ohioan on the ticket was good politics.” Ohio was one of the few states that could back either a Democrat or a Republican.

The state is still relevant, with 18 coveted electoral votes, but factors that include geography have made it harder for an Ohioan to win the nomination.

The proximity of New Hampshire as the state with the first presidential primary has attracted scores of candidates from adjacent states. Massachusetts statewide officials such as Democrats John Kerry in 2004, Paul Tsongas in 1992, and Michael Dukakis in 1988 all won the New Hampshire Primary as did Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, who had been governor of Massachusetts.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, easily won the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic Primary while Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts intends to run for president in 2020.

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By contrast, Ohio is simply not close to any the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. In 2016, John Kasich — into his second term as governor of Ohio — bypassed Iowa and devoted his energies to New Hampshire. But he finished a distant second to Trump in New Hampshire and he never posed a serious challenge afterward.

“The Democrats make a mistake,” said Mary Anne Sharkey, a non-partisan consultant in Cleveland. “They should be looking to Ohio for candidates. If you can get Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania the ballgame is over.”

Sharkey said national Democrats too often look at the presidential race “from an East Coast perspective. They are not looking at how you can actually win,” she said.

“You have to pick up the heartland,” Sharkey said. “Those are the states which are in play. We know how the East Coast is going to vote. We know how the West Coast is going to vote. We know how the South is going to vote.”

Some wonder if the early primaries play a role in the state’s lack of candidates.

“I don’t think it’s because we are running dolts,” said James Ruvolo, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “The problem is we’ve never really had somebody who has planned this right: get started early, and camp out in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. “Unless they are willing to do that, forget it. Kasich got in late. You can’t wait.”

Possible contenders

Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio lost to Thomas Dewey at the 1948 Republican convention. Taft was also a contender in 1940 and 1952. He died in 1953.
Photo: Washington Bureau

The last truly serious presidential contender from Ohio was Republican Sen. Robert Taft, son of President William Howard Taft. As the leader of the conservative and isolationist wing of the Republican Party, Taft was a formidable contender for the GOP nomination in 1940, 1948 and 1952.

But in each case, the Republicans opted for more internationalist nominees – Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas Dewey in 1948 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Only Eisenhower won.

Ohio has had some strong would-be candidates in recent decades that just never opted to pull the trigger, said Kondik. Former Ohio Senator and Gov. Frank Lausche was considered as a possible running mate to both Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Harry Truman. Neither man ultimately selected him.

Former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan could have been a potential contender in 1976 if he’d won his re-election in 1974, said Kondik, but that didn’t happen either.

In 1987, Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste considered running for president, but decided not to after stories of about his personal life ended his chances.

“You would think given the importance of industrial Midwest there should be prime territory,” said Dale Butland, a former adviser to the late Democratic Sen. John Glenn of Ohio. “There was a time when Dick Celeste was talking about running for president. He would have been the kind of person who could have caught on. But he never got out of the starting gate. Senator Glenn ran and he didn’t get very far.”

‘Anything could happen’

Kondik attributes some of the drought to fate.

“It just hasn’t really panned out,” he said. “I would say that for a lot of the most prominent Ohio politicians on both sides of the aisle, there were certain circumstances that got in the way of them really becoming viable presidential candidates.”

But what about Kasich or Brown in 2020? While we may have a hint on how Kasich would play based on his performance in 2016, the Democratic field is wide open, Kondik said.

“Anything could happen,” he said.

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