Democrats in Ohio couldn’t match the gains the party made in other states, and now some observers are wondering if the state itself should be colored in a deep shade of red.
That has implications beyond politics, because Ohio has long benefited from its swing-state reputation, which brings candidates, media attention and increased spending to the state.
“To be honest with you, I think a lot of folks in Washington will think twice before putting a lot of money into this state next time around,” said Dale Butland, a Democratic strategist and former press secretary to John Glenn.
Butland’s blunt assessment is disputed by some — including Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who says Ohio is not becoming more conservative — but it’s clear Republicans had a very good night on Nov. 6, carrying all 12 of the congressional seats they held before the election and winning every non-judicial statewide race except for one.
In the Democrats’ only statewide win, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, rode an advertising campaign that emphasized the “dignity of work” to beat Republican Rep. Jim Renacci by 6.4 percentage points. Brown received more votes in the election than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican.
But even money — Democrats outraised Republicans in many of the congressional races — couldn’t crack the domination Republicans have in the Ohio congressional delegation, though Democrats did up their percentage in all 12 Republican-held districts.
Common Cause Ohio Executive Director Catherine Turcer said the outcome in the races for Congress should come as no surprise. Ohio’s congressional map is so tilted toward incumbents that even enthusiastic candidates who benefited from a motivated base and enough money to go on TV couldn’t break through, she said.
“What can happen is that these very safe seats are created, and that means the focus is on folks who have name recognition,” she said. “Even when there’s a really good opponent who gets in there and engages in a more competitive election, it appears not to be quite enough.”
Gasper: ‘Do we surrender 2020 and focus on 2022?’
Even candidates in the least gerrymandered districts couldn’t get much of an edge. Theresa Gasper, a Beavercreek Democrat who challenged Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said the district is one of the least advantageous for incumbent Republicans in Ohio, though Turner won the seat by more than 30 points in 2016. The district is known as an R-plus-4 – meaning that all other things being equal, a Republican candidate has a four-point advantage.
Gasper cut the 2016 gap by more than half, but still lost to Turner, a eight-term incumbent and former Dayton mayor, by 14.2 percentage points.
In the weeks since her defeat, Gasper has contemplated whether to run again in 2020. Redistricting reform was approved last May, but the new maps won’t kick in until after the 2020 election.
“Our biggest concern, quite honestly, is that the districts are gerrymandered until 2022, so is running prior (to 2022) an exercise in futility?” she said. “The question becomes, do we surrender 2020 and focus on ’22, even though that means losing the momentum we’ve gained.”
Other Democrats see at least some hope in the election results.
Democrat Rick Neal, who challenged Columbus area Rep. Steve Stivers in Ohio’s 15th congressional district, said he’s heartened that Democrats beat their performance in 2016, saying “we definitely moved the needle in a really big way.”
But Democrats continue to fight an uphill battle, he said, particularly in districts where President Donald Trump is strong.
He points to Democrat Ken Harbaugh, who challenged Republican Bob Gibbs in eastern Ohio’s 7th Congressional District. Harbaugh, he said, “worked for two years. He went everywhere. He talked to everyone.” Gibbs won with nearly 59 percent of the vote.
Danny O’Connor, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Republican Troy Balderson in Ohio’s 12th congressional district twice this year — first in a special election and then again in November — said Democrats made gains despite districts that are drawn to be “wave-proof.”
But Columbus area Rep. Steve Stivers, who chaired the National Republican Campaign Committee last cycle, has a slight different take. He said incumbents won because “we have good incumbents who are serving their constituents well.”
Many of the seats Republicans lost nationwide were also open seats, Stivers said, but Ohio had only one true open seat: Renacci’s, and in that conservative district the Republican candidate was former Ohio State University football star Anthony Gonzalez. He won with nearly 57 percent of the vote.
“We had good Democrats and Republican incumbents,” Stivers said. “That’s why things pretty much stayed the way they were.”
Whaley: ‘Ohio is still a swing state’
In a commentary that ran in the New York Times after the election, Whaley argued that Ohio is still a swing state. She called the legislative maps “absurd” and took comfort in the fact that Gov.-elect Mike DeWine outspent his opponent and had a huge advantage in name recognition, yet his vote total was barely over 50 percent.
“Ohio is not a red state,” she wrote. “But if national progressives write us off and Ohio Democrats fail to respond to the needs of working people in all corners of our state, it will be.”
Former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges, however, said the state is red and has been for some time. He points to the fact that the GOP has swept nearly every statewide election since 1990.
“The question is: Is it 12-4 red?” he said, referring to the advantage Republicans having in the U.S. House delegation. “I don’t know.”