Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-OH) surprise retirement announcement in January sent reverberations through the political world. A safe Republican hold suddenly became a potentially competitive race.
But Democratic eagerness was tempered by the fairly dismal recent history in the state: excepting Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), no Democrat has won the governor’s mansion, a U.S. Senate race, or the state’s electoral votes for President since President Barack Obama did so in 2012. President Donald Trump’s back-to-back wins in 2016 and 2020 indicated to many that Ohio is not the swing state it once was.
“The formula for success in Ohio for Democrats is not a secret,” Jonathan Varner, president of JVA Campaigns, a political consultancy in Columbus, told TPM. “You can’t get pummeled in the rural areas, you need to do better than average in the suburbs and you have to turn out your cities.”
“The question is, how do you do that?”
Brown alone seems to have the formula down.
He won reelection most recently in 2018 with about 53 percent of the vote, a smaller-than-expected margin, but despite a last-minute President Donald Trump rally in Cleveland to bolster Republican candidates. It was an even more impressive win given that, aside from a couple of state Supreme Court seats, Democrats down-ballot were absolutely routed. Republicans won the governor’s mansion and all constitutional offices, held on to their congressional seats and maintained their majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. While many other parts of the country were splashed by a sizable blue wave that year, Republicans dominated Ohio.
Brown has been in elected office for decades, serving as Ohio’s secretary of state and in the state House of Representatives before becoming a U.S. Senator in 2007. He’s made his brand on wrinkled suits and a gravelly-voiced authenticity, championing workers rights as well as those of women and LGBTQ people. He speaks in economic populism, a language that may have endeared Ohioans to both him and Trump.
And he appears to have figured out a way to appeal across-the-board to a large state in which politics vary dramatically depending on what corner of the state you’re in.
“The thing you have to realize about Ohio is how regionalized it is — you shouldn’t think it’s like Michigan and you shouldn’t think it’s like Kentucky, but parts of it are like both,” said Diane Feldman, Brown’s pollster since 1994 who recently retired.
Even during the electoral drought, Democrats have shown themselves adept at winning over particular swaths of Ohioans — the trick is to get them all at the same time.
“Rich Corday in 2018 did well with blue collar Ohio but did not do well with white collar people; Biden did really well with white collar people but not blue; neither did great in the cities in Ohio, but Hillary Clinton did,” said John Hagner, a partner at data firm Clarity Campaign Labs who has worked for Brown and the Ohio Democratic party.
“How do you do those three hard things simultaneously?” he asked. “That’s the lock we have to pick.”
And it’s getting harder, as Ohio drifts to the right. The state is whiter than the national average, and a lower percentage of its residents have bachelor’s degrees. And where demographic shifts may be painting some states bluer, it’s doing the opposite in the Buckeye State. President Joe Biden’s campaign didn’t initially consider Ohio as part of its path to victory, turning its attention to the state only in the second half of 2020.
“Part of that national realignment everywhere in the country is that blue collar white people — particularly male, particularly in small towns or rural areas — are becoming more Republican. White collar white women, particularly in the suburbs, are moving to the Democrats,” said Hagner. “That trade is why Virginia and Colorado have become blue states and why Georgia is competitive — and it’s a terrible deal for Ohio.”
But the race is still very much in flux. On the Democratic side, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) has expressed interest in running, not least because his district may be eliminated or drastically changed in this round of redistricting. The New York Times reported that he plans to announce his candidacy by March. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said that she’ll make a decision in the coming weeks, since before Portman’s retirement she was expected to run for governor. Former director of the Ohio Department of Health Amy Acton has stepped down from her foundation to consider a run. Also frequently mentioned in the mix is Minority Leader of the Ohio House of Representatives Emilia Sykes, though she has not made any public statements yet.
For the Republicans, so far only Josh Mandel, former state treasurer who ran against Brown in 2012 and 2018, has announced his bid formally. A couple of others are at least gesturing towards possibly running: former Ohio Republican Party leader Jane Timken stepped down from her post in early February and has since hired political operatives; Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) has started running ads, leading to a Twitter spat with John Kasich. The list of others mulling a run is long, including former Rep. Jim Renacci, Rep. Steve Stivers and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and Kasich are among those who have said publicly that they will not run.
Ultimately, Democrats won’t have a choice but to compete: as 2020 showed, winning Senate seats in a chamber so severely tilted in favor of Republican states is an uphill battle.
“The big picture is, if Democrats don’t figure out how to win blue collar white people in the midwest, they stay in a world of very narrow paths,” said Hagner. “We can’t just say ‘it’s gonna be tough so let’s skip it’ — giving up on blue collar white people would be a disaster.”