YOUNGSTOWN, OHIO — Ahead of Ohio’s May 8 primary election, die-hard Democrats like Dave Betras are watching closely, but skeptically, for signs of 2018’s predicted “blue wave.”
“It’s like Donald Trump threw chum in the water and brought out swarms of sharks,” Betras, the chair of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, told TPM. “I see so many people getting excited and go out and march and work against him, but I don’t know whether those people will vote.”
At the same time, Betras said, Trump remains popular. Some of his policies, like tariffs on Chinese steel, “sell well” in a state hit hard by globalization and outsourcing.
“Trump can bang all the porn stars he wants and it won’t matter here,” he quipped. “They haven’t abandoned him yet.”
So far, more Democrats than Republicans have requested absentee ballots — a reverse of the usual midterm trend for the state. But is that a sign of higher enthusiasm on the left, or is it just that the Democratic primary in the governor race is seen as more competitive than the GOP primary. And though new progressive groups have sprouted up in the state amid an outpouring of post-2016 energy, and have organized everything from gun violence marches to an anti-gerrymandering ballot initiative, will those people show up to the polls in a midterm year?
Ever since Donald Trump won big in the longtime Democratic stronghold of Youngstown in 2016, helping him capture the key swing state and propelling him to the White House, Ohio Democrats have been asking themselves how to both coax Trump voters back into the fold and fire up the disaffected segment of the party’s base that sat out the 2016 election. With races for Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General and U.S. Senator in 2018, a great deal is riding on whether they succeed.
Ohio Democrats from Sandusky to Youngstown say they’re not assuming a blue wave will sweep them into power in the upcoming races for governor, senator, and control of the state legislature. But in their current fight to convince Trump voters that the GOP does not have their best interests at heart, organizers say Republicans are doing the work for them.
“Our rural areas overwhelmingly supported Trump, but now he’s starting a trade war with China. If China slaps on soy tariffs, that will really hurt Ohio’s farmers,” Chris Anderson, the president of Mahoning County Young Democrats and vice chairman of the national Young Democrats’ Rural Caucus, told TPM. He added that people in the area have been further disillusioned by the mass layoffs just announced this week at the Lordstown auto plant.
“General Motors got a gigantic influx of cash from the tax bill and then turned around and laid off 1500 people,” he said. “The Republican Party is so invested in trickle-down economics, but you’re not seeing it trickle down. So this election is about showing people they were sold a false bill of goods. Trump talked about reopening steel mills and bringing back the coal industry and things like that, but he’s not doing that.”
Still, Trump voters in the area show no sign of breaking with the President. At a well-attended Thursday campaign stop for Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine, who is running for governor, many “crossover” voters said they have no intention of going back.
Greg Dulick, a retired Vietnam veteran who voted consistently Democratic until 2008, told TPM he was thrilled by Trump’s recent decision to bomb Syria without congressional authorization.
“The difference between Trump and Obama is that Obama drew a ‘red line’ in the sand and didn’t enforce. Trump drew a red line and said ‘Don’t you cross it,’ and as soon as they started killing people over there, we bombed them,” he enthused, adjusting a well-worn Make America Great Again cap decorated with Trump pins. “He’s done more in one year than Obama did in eight.”
Another lifelong Youngstown Democrat turned Trump supporter, Nicolette Bleacher, told TPM she “can get past his personality” because “he’s been effective with the taxes.”
“And I think we do need a wall,” she added. “That’s part of solving the drug problem.”
Asked if the administration so far has lived up to her expectations, Bleacher replied: “If he had more cooperation I think he’d be ahead of my expectations.” She paused, pursing her lips, before adding, “I think he loves this country and I hope he doesn’t disappoint me.”
Support for Trump remains stronger in Ohio than his dismal approval numbers nationally. But after a wave of progressive upset victories in Trump-supporting areas of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Alabama, Ohio Democrats are hoping — but not counting on — the wave to hit their state next.
Anderson, an MBA student whose classmates are by-and-large conservative, agrees, but sees some signs of waning support.
“You’ll never get people to admit they cast a bad vote, but I’ve taken an inventory of people I know who were vocally outspoken about their support for Trump, and now I’m noticing that they haven’t talked about Trump in a long time,” he said. “It’ll be really interesting to see what percentage of the Democratic voters who crossed over for Trump in 2016 come back in this primary. If we have high turnout, that will definitely send a positive signal for the general, and for the 2020 elections.”
At the same time, Anderson and other Ohio Democrats tell TPM, there has been a sustained outpouring of grassroots energy on the left. High school and college students organized and turned out thousands of people to marches for gun control in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Youngstown that included voter registration drives. A citizen-led movement against gerrymandering pushed the staunchly Republican state legislature to drop their opposition to a ballot initiative for fairer redistricting. The shifting political winds have prompted several GOP incumbents, including Ohio’s Rep. Pat Tiberi, to retire from Congress. The favorable climate has inspired first-time Democratic candidates to throw their hats in the ring and motivated younger elected officials to seek higher office.
“If there was a year to run, this is the year to do it,” Joe Helle, a young progressive mayor in a deep red area outside Sandusky currently running for the state House, told TPM excitedly. “People are really ticked off and motivated to vote.”
“That being said,” Helle added cautiously, “I’m not banking on a massive social revolution to win.”